Confronting Gender: The Possibilities of the Liveable Life

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Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender continues the debates on gender and sexuality by further questioning what “it might mean to undo restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life.” What compels me is the way justice is an integral part of her investigation as she is “guided by the question of what maximizes the possibilities for a livable life, what minimizes the possibilities of unbearable life, or indeed, social or literal death,” (8). She highlights how human rights often entail the risk of exclusion, or worse, of degrading those who fail to comply to regulated norms. Specifically,

Justice is not only or exclusively a matter of how persons are treated or how societies are constituted. It also concerns consequential decisions about what a person is, and what social norms must be honored and expressed for personhood to become allocated, how we do or do not recognize animate others as persons depending on whether or not we recognize a certain norm manifested in and by the body of that other. (From Chapter 3)

Her analysis of the David Reimer case puts flesh and blood on the problems that arise from trying to make sense of the ways we not only “do,” but understand, explain, describe, or in a nutshell, categorize gender. In this instance she pushes us to:

…interrogate the criterion that informs the ways we do or do not recognize ourselves at the level of feeling desire, and the body at the moments before the mirror, in the moments before the window, in the times that one turns to psychologists, to psychiatrists, to medical and legal professionals to negotiate what may well feel like the unrecognizability of one’s gender and, hence the unrecognizability of one’s personhood.

The horrendous circumstances around his life literally from birth and then, the attempt to correct, control and make sense of his gender and sexuality disturbs me to no end. At every turn, on either side, it is difficult to see past the problems with the medical and psychological/psychiatric intervention. Butler concludes:

My point in recounting the story to you and its appropriation for the purposes of gender theory is to suggest that the story as we have it does not actually supply evidence for either thesis, and suggest that there may be another way of reading this story, one that neither confirms nor denies the theory of social construction, on that neither affirms nor denies gender essentialism.

The key here is in his own agency exercised through self-explanation. He narrates his own process and journey, his own feelings, his own interpretation, and sometimes he uses the terms and labels that are socially familiar, and other times his words suggest something inexplicable and beyond definition. The way he invokes the “I” in this “quite hopeful and unexpected way,” in embracing the possibility of experiencing love someday is moving: “…for some other reason, a reason they do not understand, and it is not a reason we are given. It is clearly a reason beyond the regime of reason established by the norms of sexology itself…he establishes the limits of what they know, disrupting the politics of truth, making use of his desubjugation within that order of being to establish the possibility of love beyond the grasp of that norm.”

His discourse enters into a liminal space blurring the lines of intelligibility and norms as he critiques the categories of gender and identity. I hear echoes of Foucault’s subversion of the typical knowledge production sites particularly in terms of discourse as a means to strategically engage the “interplay of truth and sex,” (Foucault 57). The discourse that David Reimer attempts to construct through his own narrative is an example of the way “critical interrogation on the present and on ourselves,” can be liberative. His self-investigation, his self-conclusions, his self-questions embodies the possibility of knowledge as power, and the possibility of that appropriation of that power – selfhood and agency – by those that we would not expect otherwise. In doing so, the possibility of being and doing gender, sexuality, and humanity becomes boundless.

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