Collected Writings

Metaphysics of Feminism:

A Critical Note on Judith Butler's Gender Trouble[1]

Michael Eldred

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    Table of contents

    1. Metaphysical feminist substance 

    2.  Leaving metaphysical feminism behind 

    . What is it about that incoherent discursive mess precariously held together by a cobweb of authorial and often authoritative names, and called feminist theory, that exercises such an appeal for countless women and even the odd man? Apparently, it is the promise of the "subversion"[2] of "phallogocentric" "discourse" and "practices" that constitute and "construct" sexuality, and thus the promise of the "liberation" of "desire" and "identity" from "masculinist" shackles. All the quotation marks here mark terms that play a prominent part in Judith Butler's influential book on Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. The deployment of words such as "subversion" and "desire" by feminist theory could not have been done more skilfully by an advertising agency commissioned to design a campaign for a new perfume, albeit that the promise of liberation is supposed to be situated beyond the seductive allures of consumerist "signifying practices". To be sure, in common with many other feminist writers, Butler's endeavour is that of the subversion of "matrices of cultural intelligibility that govern gendered life" (p.41). Like other 'advanced', pseudo-radical, 'subversive', philosophical names on the Continental circuit, she belongs to those sophisticated, smooth-operating, modern-day sophists who know how to skilfully work their chosen pliable market segment, which can be characterized roughly as educated, soft-left liberal, progressive democrats. Despite all the sham radical openness of their associative, slip-sliding, metonymic rhetorical discourse, it is from the outset tailored to and panders to unquestioned political prejudices on which its success vitally depends. The willing recipients of this discourse are therefore already at home in a comfy club. 

    1. Metaphysical feminist substance 

    A prominent position is assumed in feminist theory, and in Butler's book in particular, by the phrase "metaphysics of substance". Butler and others claim to put a critical distance between their own thinking and the traditional, purportedly phallological, and therefore, oppressive discourse of metaphysics, which is accused of being "naturalizing" and "ahistorical" and, along with that, of erecting an "ontology of substances" (p.25). What does Butler understand by a "metaphysics of substance" and why is such metaphysics to be put at arm's length? And does Butler's alternative proposal at all elude the metaphysics of substance? To start with the answers to these questions, let us turn to Section V of the first chapter, Identity, Sex, and the Metaphysics of Substance. 

    The concern is with identity, i.e. with how people, in particular, women, understand who they themselves are. Identity is self-understanding as an aspect of one's own existing in the world. Each individual understands not only the world in its multifarious aspects but also themself as someone in the world. According to Butler, such identities are supposed by traditional understanding to be "self-identical, persisting through time as the same, unified and internally coherent" (p.22), and this temporal persistence, Butler says, is grounded in the "definitional structure of personhood, be that consciousness, the capacity for language, or moral deliberation" (ibid.) or "self-determination" (p.26). Substance is thus understood to be the temporal persistence of the conscious human subject who understands itself consistently and coherently over time, can speak and determine its own existence on the basis of its free will. Substance is thus hominized as the human subject of consciousness. To this conception Butler counterposes her own that the 'substantial person' is only the effect of "socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility" (p.23), i.e. of "signifying practices" (p.184) through which human subjects come to understand who they are in the world, i.e. to assume an identity. 

    Can the metaphysics of substance be truncated to the metaphysics of the conscious human subject? Is consciousness to be regarded as equivalent to the "capacity for language"? A brief look at the history of philosophy shows that substance can by no means be equated with the conscious human subject and that even the capacity for language traditionally does not imply human subjectivity nor human consciousness. The word 'substance' is originally the Latin translation of Greek ou)si/a (ousia) and u(pokei/menon (hypokeimenon), both terms playing a central role in Aristotelean metaphysics and thereafter in all of Western metaphysics. But these two Greek terms have nothing at all to do with human consciousness or human subjectivity. Ou)si/a is the primary mode of being (of something) as a persisting, de-fined presence. As such a persisting, de-fined presence, it lies before us as something which can be spoken of and thus attributed predicates. This is the sense of u(pokei/menon, whose root 'keim' means 'to lie'. The 'hypo' part of u(pokei/menon is a prefix or preposition meaning in this case 'under', so that the u(pokei/menon is that which 'lies under', 'underlies' and is thus 'sub-ject', i.e. 'thrown under'. The 'subject' in the understanding of Greek metaphysics is thus not the human subject, but rather the things out there in the world which can be spoken of and attributed predicates. The human essence in Greek understanding is that being which has the capacity to speak and, through this capacity, has access to the being of beings. That is, humans are marked as human beings by the capacity to understand beings in their being. In Greek experience they are not subjects.

    In medieval philosophy, which is simultaneously Christian theology, the substantial subject again is not the human, but God as the subject underlying all that is created, including humans, so that humans are the ob-jects, i.e. that which is 'thrown against' the underlying almighty, supreme subject. 

    If substance is understood as that mode of being which underlies, then it becomes apparent that Butler has not in any way escaped the pull of the metaphysics of substance but has merely passed along its historical trajectory with a displacement of the subject in the course of late metaphysical discourse from the conscious human subject to social practices, in this case, to social signifying practices. The schema of the metaphysics of substance has just been given one more twist, one more inversion through the metaphysics of Marxian and Nietzschean thinking and its adherents, culminating in the so-called 'linguistic turn', which has made another realm of beings, namely practices, into the subject underlying all that is. But all inversion remains the same, i.e. it remains within the same schema of metaphysics as a possible variation, a schema in which certain beings or regions of beings are accorded a privileged status as ground. Specifically, in Butler's and other structuralist metaphysics of social practices as substance, including the bevy of French thinkers of which Anglophone feminism is so enamoured, human beings become the "effect" or precipitate of the signifying practices into which they are "inserted". Signifying practices, a certain class of beings, are thus accorded the privilege of grounding other beings, to wit, human beings in their identity or self-understanding. 

    One may object that social practices or socio-cultural signifying practices do not qualify as underlying substance because they are subject to change and, taken together, are neither coherent nor consistent. But is persistence through time the essential hallmark of substance? To decide this, it is helpful to turn to the phenomena themselves and do some phenomenological finger exercises, something which Butler and most other feminists joining in 'advanced' discourse have in general failed to do to their own detriment. Engagement with the phenomena would be more persuasive than adducing an entire array of authoritative authorial names such as Foucault, Lacan, Irigary, Kristeva, Wittig and others, along with their phantasmagoric theoretical constructions, in order to legitimize assertions. If we take the simple Aristotelean example of a bed as an instance of substance or ou)si/a (ousia), this does not mean that the bed is unchanging, for it is produced, is subject to wear and tear and can easily be destroyed. What substance means in the case of a bed is that it is the bearer of attributes which can be predicated of it in speaking about it, e.g. it has a certain colour and size and is positioned in a certain place. The colour, size and position of the bed can all change, and yet the bed is still spoken of as a bed, i.e. as a substantial something. Nor is the bed as a substance or ou)si/a in the sense of its to\ ti\ h)=n ei)=nai, its 'what-it-was-ness' or 'essence', 'natural' or 'ahistorical', if only for the simple reason that the idea of a bed only makes sense within a culture that uses beds. 

    The situation is similar in the metaphysics of modernity initiated paradigmatically by Descartes and formulated consummately in depth in Kant's metaphysics. The metaphysics of subjectivity casts the subject as an underlying consciousness which strives for self-certainty in its knowing relations to beings. The identity of this consciousness does not lie in its unchangeability, in its constancy through time, but in what Kant calls the 'transcendental apperception' of consciousness whereby the representations appearing to consciousness are gathered together in such a way that they all belong to one unified consciousness. This unity of consciousness as a mode of being constitutes the ego's transcendental identity, and this by no means requires that somehow the contents of consciousness remain the 'same'. Identity as apperception is transcendental because this unity is given prior to any specific representations experienced Kant's famous a priori. In other words, human consciousness has a past, present and future and gathers all these 'happenings' in consciousness into its own identity, i.e. it recognizes itself as that consciousness underlying, i.e. as the subject of, all these experiences. Descartes says this as cogito me cogitare: I think/experience myself thinking/experiencing. This myself is not a product of the experiences but is prior to them in an ontological casting of subjectivity. What is essential is not a constancy of experience or self-understanding through that experience, but the mode of being underlying these experiences. 

    The same holds mutatis mutandis for Butler's metaphysics of signifying practices, which indeed, in the footsteps of Marx and Nietzsche, casts an ontology in which signifying practices serve as the subject. Butler's understanding of ontology as a philosophical discourse of naturalized being, as if being were outside history, is a narrow and outmoded view. Rather, her own discourse implicitly casts, and that very insistently, an understanding of being in which signifying practices assume the foundational position underlying all else. Butler's writing strategy of putting scare quotes around certain words derived from 'to be' and claiming that certain nouns are not nouns (substantives in an older terminology) does nothing at all to free her from the strictures of the metaphysics of substance, but rather indicates how helplessly and unknowingly she is entangled within such strictures. Butler is not alone in this entanglement, and despite all the gestures of progressiveness and cutting-edgedness put on display by feminist theory in its parades of obfuscating jargon, it instantiates nevertheless the metaphysics of substance it derides, even when, on the other hand, it pretends to be down-to-earth and gets sociological. 

    Metaphysics and ontology both have a history and both do not at all necessarily assert a naturalness of being beyond or independent of what Butler calls culture. Butler's metaphysics of signifying practices is situated unwittingly within this Western history of metaphysics and is not free of it. If her implicit metaphysics were to be made explicit, then it would be confronted with questions which feminist theory consistently fails and refuses to see. The principal question in this regard is that concerning the being of social practices. It is simply repeated dogmatically like a mantra that social (including cultural) practices must be the starting-point for any theory of gender, since gender, it is claimed, is "socially constructed". But what is society? This question is invariably passed over, as if to pose it would be to fall back into the insidious clutches of an ahistorical, naturalizing metaphysics. Society is a mode of being in which human beings are sociated with each other. But what is human being, and what is sociation, and how is it possible? Such questions become all the more urgent once it is realized that society, in these ostensibly progressive theories, is posited as the ultimate underlying substance. But they are never asked, and have not yet even faintly appeared on the horizon of feminist discourse. 

    In the beginnings of metaphysics, an intimate interrelation was thought between social being and language. For Aristotle, the human is the being that has the logos, i.e. who can speak, and is therefore sociated, i.e. a polis-like being. The polis in this fundamental context is not to be understood as a city or as the historical city-state in an area of the Mediterranean called Greece, but rather it is the opening of sociated human being per se, and this opening is essentially connected in Greek thinking experience with humans having language. Butler's insistence on signifying practices as the bond constituting society still lies within the ambit of the Western beginnings, but she does not know that her discourse is thus situated and so merely reproduces unknowingly a certain ontology whilst claiming to be free of it. 

    2.  Leaving metaphysical feminism behind 

    So is it to be concluded that Butler's theory, and along with it the bulk of feminist theory, is to be rejected as being still metaphysical? Not at all. Rather, it means that, in recognizing the metaphysical nature of its own discourse, feminism would be moved or jolted to finally ask deeper questions. Butler's strategy is to provide the framework for putting certain discourses of identity, i.e. of self-understanding, into question, thus displacing and shifting their meaning and opening up other possibilities for how people (in this case, predominantly women) could understand themselves in their existence in the world. Such non-standard self-understandings could indeed open up new possibilities in a cultural struggle. But is the struggle of feminism exhausted already in the struggle to cast new and other cultural self-understandings in alternative discourses? Is the ultimate challenge for feminism "to think through the possibility of subverting and displacing those naturalized and reified notions of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power, to make gender trouble" (p. 44)? Not in the least, for there are deeper questions at issue here which can no longer be approached from within a metaphysical framework, no matter whether this framework be explicit or, as in Butler's case, implicit. 

    Such deeper questions, which would explore an essential historical relationship between gendered being and being itself, can only emerge when it is finally asked what dimension it is within which people practise their social signifying practices. What is the dimension of sociation that enables such a thing as society? To pursue such a question concerning Mitsein, and the many questions that inevitably emerge in connection with it, it is necessary to finally step outside and back from the firmly cast framework of metaphysics, in all its historical twists and turnings, which continues to cast its shadow from the Western beginnings lying on the Eastern horizon, and to venture forth into an other cast of thought. But Butler explicitly refuses this path of thinking with her misconceived rejection of an "ontology of gender whereby the meaning of being a woman or a man is [or would be; ME] elucidated within the terms of phenomenology" (p.43, Butler's italics). Instead, she opts for a "genealogical investigation that maps out the political parameters of its construction in the mode of ontology" (ibid.). This way of thinking gender has the consequence that "political parameters" (and thus supposedly self-evident moral and political convictions in connection with strategic considerations in a constellation of power) serve as the fundamental points of orientation in the discourse without the meaning of their being, which is prior to any moral or political considerations, ever being questioned or clarified. 

    Butler justifies her refusal to seriously pose questions regarding an "ontology of gender whereby the meaning of being a woman or a man [would be] elucidated" with the claim that to do so would be to treat gender as a natural category. For Butler, all ontology is "naturalized" (p.42) and therefore outside history. For her, any phenomenon that isn't social is necessarily natural. But the question of the being of gender is historical without being reducible to being merely an effect of social discursive practices (whose being is left unquestioned). The question of being is situated prior to the dichotomy society/nature or culture/nature (where prior here is not meant in a temporal sense, but rather in the order of enabling conditions of possibility). To pose the question concerning the being of gender involves examining the phenomena of historical, gendered being-in-the-world against the background of gendered being's embeddedness in an historical understanding of being as such that can be coaxed to come to light by examining the traditional texts of metaphysics, starting with Plato and Aristotle. Western thinking and Western being-in-the-world, at least, are to the present day silently shaped and determined by the discreet historical background workings of metaphysics. 

    A questioning gender-ontological endeavour would not lead to, say, making a "construction of the category of women as a coherent and stable subject" (p.8f). On the contrary! Nor would it lead to a global critique of a "selfsame phallogocentrism" (p.18) which would 'monologically' and 'imperialistically' and 'Eurocentrically' level all differences in the "array of cultural and historical contexts in which sexual difference takes place" (p.18). Elementary phenomenology would have shown Butler that the same by no means denies and levels difference, but rather demands it, just as, conversely, difference is only possible within a gathering into the same. Just as a series of different colours can only be different within the gathering sameness of colour, so too there can only be differences in (gendered) identity, i.e. self-understanding, within the same dimension of self-understanding itself. Different self-understandings are different self-understandings. And to clarify what a self-understanding is at all demands asking the question of being. Where are self-understandings situated, in what dimension? 

    Movement can only come into the question of (the meaning of) gendered being in its deepest sense by posing the question of being itself, which allows the casting of beings as a whole in their being to be re-vised and possibly re-cast. This represents, beyond the metaphysically confined and dogmatic horizon of cultural critique and Cultural Studies, the most radical possibility for, inter alia, "rethinking subversive possibilities for sexuality and identity" not merely "within the terms of power itself" (p.40), but rather with regard to an alternative self-understanding within an alternative casting of being itself. What the overcoming of the metaphysics of substance demands is a side-step out of traditional metaphysics, in which the question of quiddity or whatness has played the lead role for millennia, into a questioning of the phenomenon of quissity, of whoness, that has remained philosophically mute to the present day, including and especially in approaches to the question of gender via "signifying practices". 
    Despite the occasional genuflection toward Heidegger, feminist theory has yet to discover the genuine ontological difference and to pose for itself the question concerning the meaning of historically gendered being. It has allowed itself to be befuddled by the Derridean destruction of phenomenology into grammatogrammy by replacing what can be brought to light for the mind's eye with the continually shifting play on words through endless writing.[3] Feminist theory proceeds from the distinction between two kinds of human beings, men and women, i.e. an ontic difference, which it then proceeds to interpret e.g. in terms of how "signifying practices" are "inscribed" in two different kinds of bodies. To ask what gender means, leaving such metaphysics behind, requires asking for the twofold in being itself between standing presence and its negation, which was unable to come into its own in metaphysical thinking. Thinking beyond metaphysics, men and women do not exist, but masculine and feminine beings do in two modes of human being itself, i.e. in two different modes of how human beings belong to and stand out resonantly in ek-static time-space as who they are. To be somewho in relating to standing presence is to come to a stand through understanding the well-defined looks that beings offer of themselves, i.e. to stand in the light of reason in possession of the lo/goj through which beings as such are gathered into a stand. This can be called the masculine, or phallic, mode of being for human beings. 
    The three-dimensional clearing of time-space, however, is not exhausted by the standing presence of the beings standing well-definedly within it, thus allowing human beings to come to a rational, pro-ductive, fore-casting understanding. Nor is it exhausted even by the play of presencing and absencing of beings presenting the sights of themselves in the 3D-time-clearing.[4]  Its differing, deferential, but undeferred other, remaining when both standing presence and the play of presencing and absencing are exhauriated, or drawn off, is the quivering whence all attunement resonates. The sensitivity to this unclearly defined quivering can be called, for want of a better name, the feminine mode of being. In belonging to the quivering of the time-clearing, human being itself is attunedly 'feminine' which is therefore merely the title for what cannot be gathered into a well-defined stand, thus lending a stand to the human being who understands. Whereas metaphysically, phallic human being has been oriented toward the third-person stance of beings as they present themselves in the time-clearing, above all, with the intent of leading them forth, i.e. of pro-ducing them, into actual presence, a feminine mode of human being has quivered attuningly in the subtraction of third-person understanding, leaving the second-person difference of intimate attuned presence with one another. Seen in this way, the second-person fold of being is not confined to the intimacy between human beings, but encompasses all intimate encounter with other beings, human or not, in which attunement is felt as appreciative or depreciative, uplifting or downcasting co-presence with the other. The well-worn grammatical categories of second and third person thus lose their trivial self-evidence and are translated back into an ontological meaning pertaining to a twofold in the 3D-temporal clearing itself, to which all human being is ex-posed so long as it ek-sists. For such an insight to come to be seen and felt by human being is a possible historical eventuation, not a 'timeless' metaphysical 'truth'. 
    There is much more to be said, of course, on the fold in being between phallic and 'feminine' modes of being.[5]  The attempt to say this fold, which is also a fold in the whoness of human being, is part of the historic struggle to get over, rather than get rid of, metaphysics. 

      1. Judith Butler Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity Routledge, New York and London 1999. Back
      2. Double quotation marks cite words from Butler's text; single quotation marks are my own scare quotes. Back
      3. Cf. my critique of Derrida in The Time of History: Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, Marx 2011. Back
      4. Cf. my 'Being Time Space: Heidegger's Casting of World' 2013. Back
      5. Cf. inter alia Michael Eldred Phänomenologie der Männlichkeit: kaum ständig noch Röll, Dettelbach 1999, Social Ontology: Recasting political philosophy through a phenomenology of whoness ontos, Frankfurt 2008/2011, 'Dialectic of Self and Other: Wrestling with Plato, Hegel, Heidegger' 2007. Back.

      Copyright (c) 2001-2013 by Michael Eldred, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.
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