Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: The Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.


Opens with the questions: “Is there a way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender? And how does the category of ‘sex’ figure within such a relationship?” Butler is responding here to interpretations of constructivism that imply that construction (as in, the construction of gender) is an act initiated by an agent (a subject or something like culture or power granted the status of an agent) that writes upon a blank, naturally given slate like the body. Understanding construction this way treats it as a purely discursive phenomenon and raises the question: what about the body/the material/the biological? Butler argues that construction is not reducible to subjects or acts, but is always a “process of reiteration” that enables us to understand subjects or acts in the first place. In place of these problematic understandings of construction, Butler proposes “a return to the notion of matter, not as a 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” (9, emphasis in the original). While we tend to take sex for granted as given or as a natural property of our bodies, Butler argues that sex is a materialization of norms–norms produced through gender performativity, or the “process of reiteration” or citation of gendered laws that brings norms into being. Butler argues that the limits of norms constructed are revealed at their boundaries–at the place where those forms not recognized as part of bodily life dwell. If sex is materialized within the logic of the heterosexual matrix, Butler wants to look at moments and embodiments that challenge the heterosexual formulation of sex we take for granted 1) so that we might understand better how the construction of the heterosexual matrix works and 2) so that we might challenge this matrix in order to expand what is considered as a liveable life and valuable body. The text is split into two parts, and the argument unfolds through an analysis of multiple theoretical and literary texts including Lacan, Freud, Foucault, Zizek, stories by Willa Cather, Nella Larsen’s Passing, and Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning.

Chapter Summary:

  1. “Bodies that Matter”–This chapter synthesizes Plato’s Timeus and Irigaray’s work on this Platonic dialogue to challenge the feminist assumption of materiality as irreducible or as something that exists prior to gendered construction by reminding us that when we invoke materiality, we invoke thousands of years of philosophical history in which masculine reason depends on the exclusion of the body and of those not seen as properly rational (women, children, slaves, etc.) who are instead relegating to carrying out the messy work of the body. Butler’s goal is not to get rid of the category of the body but rather to open it up as something that can (and must) be deconstructed as part of the heterosexual matrix.
  2. “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary”–Here Butler argues that the material and the discursive are not separate: language is material and the material cannot escape the process of signification. Butler draws on Freud, Kristeva, and Lacan to argue that the lesbian phallus is a “useful fiction” because it dissociates the phallus from the penis in a way that reaffirms but also displaces its signifying power, destabilizing the heterosexual matrix.
  3. “Phantasmatic Identification and the Assumption of Sex”–Drawing on Lacan, Butler argues that we have to assume a sexed position in order to be recognized as subjects. Assuming this sexed position requires repudiating prohibited/unthinkable/or hard to imagine positions that come to form the boundaries of a recognized, normative subjectivity. Here Butler argues that the logic of exclusion is not the domain of sex alone, but the answer is not to multiply possible identities within the same matrix. Instead, we need to envision a matrix of difference that forces us to challenge this logic of exclusion and engage in critical reflection on the exclusions we participate in with our own identifications.
  4. “Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion”–Looks at Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning and returns to her previous discussion of drag as performative to continue exploring the question of how the parody involved in drag has the potential to subvert and reinforce gender norms.
  5. “‘Dangerous Crossing’: Willa Cather’s Masculine Names”–Here Butler does a reading of several stories from Willa Cather, analyzing the way that Cather claims different names and identifications for herself in the text, often playing with cross-gender identifications to express a forbidden lesbian desire.
  6. “Passing, Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytic Challenge”–In this chapter, Butler challenges the idea that sexual difference is somehow prior to racial difference. She uses a reading of Nella Larsen’s Passing to argue that the symbolic is a set of “racially articulated sexual norms” that are always historically specific.
  7. “Arguing with the Real”–Butler takes up Zizek to argue that performativity might be reimagined as “citationality and resignification.” She also works to resituate psychoanalysis as a framework with continuing explanatory power that doesn’t have to reinforce the heterosexual matrix.
  8. “Critically Queer”–In this closing chapter, Butler takes up the word “queer” to show how citational practices are able to resituate an abject identity into a position of agency.
Key Quotes:
“There is no subject prior to its constructions, and neither is the subject determined by those constructions; it is always the nexus, the non-space of cultural collision, in which the demand to resignify or repeat the very terms which constitute the ‘we’ cannot be summarily refused, but neither can they be followed in strict obedience. It is the space of this ambivalence which opens up the possibility of a reworking of the very terms by which subjectivation proceeds–and fails to proceed.” (124)