Re: Judith Butler

>In the essay "Compulsory
>Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence", Rich postulates that
>heterosexuality is part and parcel of systemic sexism and misogyny. She
>lists some of the tactics that characterize the *imposition* of
>heterosexuality on women, and whose interests (mens) they serve:
>"punishment, including death, for lesbian sexuality... closing of
>archives and destruction of documents relating to lesbian existence...
>rape (including marital rape) and wife-beating [Susan Brownmiller also
>articulates a similar theory in _Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape_]
>... incest; the socialization of women to feel that male sexual "drive"
>amounts to a right; idealization of heterosexual romance in art,
>literature, media, advertizing, and so forth... psychoanalytic doctrines
>of frigidity and vaginal orgasm... the institutions of marriage and
>motherhood as unpaid production... seizure of children from lesbian
>mothers by the courts... rape are terrorism [from which all men benefit,
>whether they know it or not]... "feminine" dress codes... prescriptions
>for full time mothering... erasure of female tradition...
>...what surely impresses itself is the fact that we are confronting not a
>simple maintenance of inequality and property possession, but a pervasive
>cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of
>Now, what I take from this (by the way, Rich's list is *much* longer than
>my excerpting of it) is that heterosexuality is not in any way "natural".
>In fact, if it was so natural, why would we need so many things to
>enforce it? (And who is this "we" anyway?)

I'm not sure that one can mount a serious argument as to whether or not
"heterosexuality" "naturally" occurs in all human societies. By what
possible experiment could one test the hypothesis? But I do think it worth
noting that this argument for its "unnaturalness" is very dubious. Rich is
deliberately vague about just what is meant by "heterosexuality" at the
different stages of her argument so that she can make her conclusions rather
more sweeping in their implications than the premises of the argument
warrant. In order to argue that "heterosexuality" has some biologically
determined component one need not hold that any specific socio-cultural
practice is so determined. In other words, one could make the minimal claim
that there is a strong biological determination that makes it highly
probable that any possible human society will ensure that reproduction takes
place. Such a claim would in no way be disproved by the example of a society
which exhibited none of the features of "compulsory heterosexuality" listed
above. The claim that "heterosexuality is natural", in other words, is not
equivalent to the claim that "the Valentine's Day greeting card industry is
natural". A good analogy to Rich's argument (as you outline it above) would
be trying to prove that *language* is not "natural" in humans because we see
that any *given* language must be learnt slowly and painstakingly. Rich uses
the fact that a particular cultural *practice* of heterosexuality must be
learnt to argue that "heterosexuality" _per se_ is learnt.
But what really disturbs me about Rich's argument is its apparent
Rousseauist assumption that there is some ideal, "natural", state for human
society which would emerge if only the coercive forces of (in this instance
heterosexual) socialization were negated. I thought one of the central
insights of the Foucaultian analysis of Power was precisely to undermine
this conception of power as alien and external to its subjects. If one tries
to imagine a society that Rich would consider - at least with regard to
expressions of sexuality - "non-coercive", and then tries to imagine it
persisting through time one instantly sees that in order to maintain its
"non-coercive" social practices it will require precisely the kinds of
"coercive" techniques which currently maintain our contemporary discources
of "heterosexuality". There will, inevitably, be structures of power (legal
institutions, art, literature, mass-media, etc. etc.) which work to
constitute and maintain a "non-coercive" sexuality - compulsory non-coercive
sexuality, if you like.
Malcolm asks rhetorically "In fact, if it was so natural, why would we
need so many things to enforce it?" But for this question to have any force
we have to pretend that there could be a society without socialization, or a
society without discourse. We have to pretend that we aren't really
implicated in our own societies' fields and practices of power - that we,
somehow, have a language that is beyond discourse. In other words, we have
to be able to ask Malcolm's other rhetorical question and really mean it:
"(And who is this "we" anyway?)"

Hugh Roberts

  • Re: Judith Butler
    • From: D Hugh-Jones
  • Re: Judith Butler
    • From: Malcolm Dunnachie Thompson
  • Re: Judith Butler
    • From: Malcolm Dunnachie Thompson
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