Re: discourse

>Finally an interesting question in this thread that i thought set out to
>discuss, and engage with Butler's mobilisation of Foucault's (among others)
>work. I think a problem with much of what has been posted thus far is a
>general failure to discuss in any detail how Butler is using, and i think to
>an extent reworking notions of discursive construction in texts such as
>Gender Trouble; and Bodies That Matter. Instead the same tired old
>oppositions and accusations are wheeled out reducing quite complex issues
>regarding the status of discursive or social construction to discursive or
>linguistic idealism (the same old accusation of reducing the 'real' 'the
>world' to the status of text or discourse).

This is all fine. And if Butler is not susceptible to these charges, all to
the good. But it's also very question begging: can/does she avoid them? One
major clue comes in Butler's chapter in Feminist Contentions, particularly,
those criticisms from Benhabib. Butler begins her chapter by giving us
almost the same list of critiques presented above. That is, she belittles in
a similar manner tothe above deep serious unresolved questions. But does she
even attempt to answer them. No. I'm not saying that she should have all the
answers, but you don't solve problems by redescribing them. As noted in the

>refers to the "exasperated debate which many of us have tired of hearing...
>[in which] consteructivism is reduced to a position of linguistic monism,
>whereby linguistic construction is understood to be generative and
>deterministic" (6).

Fine, we are all tired with this debate. The 'scandal of philosophy' is that
positions, i.e., Butler's own, keep reappearing which make remarkable claims
that clearly do make material bodies a human construct and nothing but a
human construct, no matter how much linguistic gymnastics are performed to
deflect this charge.

Much of the discussion in this thread thus far seems to
>remain caught within such tired old assumptions about what theorists such as
>Butler mean when they talk about discursive construction; and a noted lack
>of any detailed engagement with her work.

I love this move. Criticisms are either dismissed by the charge that 'you
haven't read' the work (well actually I have) or even worse, 'you just
doooooon't understand' (a kind of theistic appeal to just believe me and it
will be all right on the night).

>she points out that construction operates through a proces of excusion... "a
>set of foreclosures, radical erasures, that are, strictly speaking, refused
>the possibility of cultural articulation" (8).

All of this is fine, if you give it a non-human spin, and I have no major
disagreements with this. Still, it raises the rather intersting questions of
how and why some things get excluded and not others? Moreover, this seems to
be suggesting a form of the 'repressive hypothesis' and clearly Foucault
(although I think he has his own Reichian model) might object to this.

An interesting quote follows:
>"for there is an 'outside' to what is constructed by discourse, but this is
>not an absolute 'outside', an ontological thereness that exceeds or counters
>the boundaries of discourse; as a constitutive 'outside', it is that which
>can only be thought---when it can---in relation to that discourse, at and as
>its most tenuous borders. The debate between constructivism and essentialism
>thus misses the point of deconstruction altogether, for the point has never
>been that 'everything is discursively constructed'; that point, when and
>where it is made, belongs to a kind of discursive monism or linguisticism
>that refuses the constitutive force of exclusion, erasure, violent
>foreclosure, abjection and its disruptive return within the very terms of
>discursive legitimacy". I think this establishes quite well how much of the
>discussion thus far, as Butler puts it "misses the point".

Absolutely not, it merely reinforces it. Since what is 'outside' of
discourse is only outside by virtue of its exclusion from those discourses,
that is a human act, not by virtue of its alterity. So it is Butler who has
missed the point, mainly I would argue because she has a simplistic version
of the relationship between knowlege, and that to which it is puported
knowledge of. Still, the charge of idealism still stands because that which
is outside of the discourse is outside only by virtue of its human
exclusion. Butler's own words betray this idealism "it is that which
>can only be thought---when it can---in relation to that discourse, at and as
>its most tenuous borders'. Once again, that which is outside is dependent
upon some aspect of humanity. Yet we can easily concede that some 'things'
ouside of any discourse can affect what is going on inside many discourses
and yet be unknown in any. Our language is not the limits of the world, nor
even the limits of _our_ world. There are many feminist scholars, much more
nuanced BTW, see Jane Flax for example.

>Against such limited conceptions of construction Butler proposes "a return
>to the notion of matter, not as site or surface, but as a process of
>materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary,
>fixity, and surface we call matter.

I'm unsure as to what the term 'limited conceptions' applies to here? But on
one reading it's unobjectionable to me. Life and humanity are contingent
factors in existence and given the unpredicability of quantum forms then
matter could always have emerged differently. But I don't see the point of
the argument. because given that it has emerged as it has we have to deal
with it and its powers and tendencies as they manifest themselves now, not
ignore them or think that we are so in control that we can simply change
them by changing our discourses of them. Of course, this leaves
underdeveloped what exactly discourses are. But widen the concept too far
and it becomes meaningless. All is discourse.

That matter is always materialzed has, I
>think, to be thought in relation to the productive and, indeed,
>materializing effects of regulatory power in the Foucaultian sense" (10).

Well, again, if you give this argument a non-human spin I have no objection
to it. However matter was formed, humans, chronologicaly speaking, are but a
blip on its b****m, we encounter it as a set of restraining factors that we
would do well to acknowledge. Were a species to emerge that consistently
denied the reality of materiality it wouldn't be around long to construct
discourses about it, would it?
>Sorry about the lengthy quotes, but perhaps this can provide something of a
>context against which to consider how Butler is mobilising concepts such as
>discursive construction, whilst avoiding the limiting opposition between
>discursive idealism/the real which thus far seems to be structuring the

On this I am with you. I certainly don't want to buy into simple
distinctions between the real and the ideal. Both are potentially causally
effective in human affairs and both need to be theorised. Still, there is,
is there not, a difference between the elephants I saw last night, which
were pink by the way, and probably due to the amounts of alchohol I
consumed, and those raoming around Africa?

I am probably simplifying to some extent much of the discussion
>to date, but i have been struck by the generalising tone and a failure to
>engage in any detail with how Butler is mobilising these terms.

This is where my major disagreement comes, because the simple mobilisation
of concepts does not necesarily lead to them being useful ones or being able
to bear the weight that is being asked of them. Whether or not Butler
succeeds is not a question that can be answered by blithey saying she is
using concepts differently. Concepts, much like materiality, are not always
up to the tasks for which they are employed. Butler does not avoid a charge
simply be asserting her innocence.


Colin Wight
Department of International Politics
University of Wales, Aberystwyth
SY23 3DA


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