I wrote this “conversation” with Judith Butler last semester as part of a non-traditional seminar paper and thought exercise to engage with her theories. I worked on this based off of the concept of the threshold in Alecia Youngblood Jackson and Lisa A. Mazzei’s Thinking with Theory. Jackson and Mazzei use the concept of “the threshold” as a space in which to interpret data. Though Jackson and Mazzei tell us that the threshold is an ambiguous space, they invite us to imagine a threshold in a house and how that threshold does not have meaning (does not become a passageway) until it is attached to something. In the amorphous space of the threshold, Jackson and Mazzei argue that we can plug in theory to help the theory and data take on new meaning. So, I endeavored to enter the “threshold” to think about some questions based on Judith Butler’s concepts of performativity and a livable life and how those might function in online spaces.
Judith Butler: Performativity and a Livable Life
Philosopher Judith Butler is most well known for her theorization of gender performativity, originally introduced in Gender Trouble and published in 1990. Since then, she “has made significant contributions to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy and ethics, and is considered to be one of the most influential intellectuals in the world” (“#131 Judith Butler”).” Her influence is far-reaching, being applied to digital media in addition to face-to-face instances of gender. The concept of performativity has remained a constant in her theorization on gender. In her later work, Undoing Gender, Butler describes gender and performativity:
If gender is a kind of doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint. Moreover, one does not ‘do’ one’s gender alone. One is always ‘doing’ with or for another, even if the other is only imaginary. (1)
This performance, then is how one communicates their gender to others—whether it be in ways that others understand or agree with or not. Performativity, as identity construction, is an ongoing process.
Butler asks what it means for gender nonconforming individuals to have a livable life in Undoing Gender. Having a “livable life” is perhaps one of the more interesting questions for online spaces since it is not necessary to have online interactions in order to have social interactions, yet it can be a site of coalition and community building (Gray), which can help lead to a more livable life.
When Butler talks about a livable life, she argues that “When we ask what makes a life livable, we are asking about certain normative conditions that must be fulfilled for life to become life” (Undoing Gender 39). But this question is not just grounded in terms of basic human needs such as shelter, food and water, though those are obviously important for any individual. Butler goes on to ask what “establishes minimum conditions for a livable life with regard to human life” and “what humans require in order to maintain and reproduce the conditions of their own livability” (Undoing Gender 39). Further, Butler acknowledges the uncertainty that inherently resides in what individuals consider to be a livable life, and how that may change in the future: “It may be that what is right and what is good consist in staying open to the tensions that beset the most fundamental categories we require, in knowing and unknowningness at the core of what we know, and what we need, and in recognizing the sign of life in what we undergo without certainty about what will come” (Undoing Gender 39).
A “Conversation” with Judith Butler
Question: Although we know that normative gender performance is reified in online spaces (Carstensen; Cook and Hasmath), there are still instances in which gender ambiguous communities have formed. How do you see those concepts working with/against one another?
Judith Butler: Well, I think that the internet, as a space, does have a great potential for giving individuals the chance to form themselves in ways that they might not have otherwise. That is to say, it provides space for “gender ambiguous,” or gender nonconforming communities to form. The internet is not one thing or another; it is merely a space. However, we are never quite free of those gender norms, cultures, and traditions that have helped us to understand ourselves in the first place, right? The people and scholars who imagined the internet as a genderless, nonhierarchical utopia were not wrong for being hopeful, but they were, perhaps, naïve for thinking that real-world norms or culture would not be brought along with the individuals who shaped the internet and instead the culture of the internet would be build from scratch. There is a certain amount of danger that comes with being gender nonconforming, and the internet, being only a blank canvas, is not something that erases that danger. “It’s very hard to clear any new path…. but we’re not just formed once, we’re formed, and then we keep being formed, and, at some point, we also form ourselves in the midst of being formed. And so this possibility for innovation or experimentation within these legacies, within these traditions, within these formations” (Butler qtd in “#131 Judith Butler”), that is performativity, and that is the potential for remaking and undoing gender in digital spaces lies. We begin to undo gender when “we grasp that we are in the midst of reiterating a norm, even that a norm has entered into a basic sense of who we are, and start to deviate… from that more obedient sense of repetition” (qtd. in Ahmed 484).
Q: You said that “being formed” and reformed, and forming ourselves is the basis of performativity. In what ways do you see this type of reforming of the self playing out in online spaces?
JB: In our daily lives, “We act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or something that’s simply true about us—a fact about us. Actually, it’s a phenomenon that’s being produced all the time and reproduced all the time. So to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start” (Butler qtd in Big Think). In online spaces, really the only thing that we are doing is performing. We perform friendship when we comment on someone’s Facebook pages to wish them a “Happy Birthday.” Individuals perform the role of a loving parent when they post pictures with their smiling children, right? Performing the role of male, female, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming is really not much different than performing the other parts of our identity in online spaces. In each of these performances, “performativity starts to describe a set of processes that produce ontological effects, that is, that work to bring into being certain kinds of realities… that lead to certain kinds of socially binding consequences” (Butler, “Performative Agency” 147). So when we perform friendship by commenting “Happy Birthday” on a friend’s Facebook page, we are committing that act of friendship to them publicly, building social capital. In that sense, we continue to perform, whether through our bodily actions or textual representations, within an already developed society with already developed ideas of gender and sexuality. So I suppose that I don’t see it playing out drastically differently than it might in real world situations.
Q: And how do you see these digital performances and processes playing into a “livable life?” Are they necessary for a modern conception of a “livable life?”
JB: In ways, yes, I think they are necessary. There have been those, like Howard Rheingold, who have extolled the virtues of online communities. These communities are affirming, and can play a big role in the support of queer individuals who may lack support in their day-to-day lives (Gray), whether that be due to difficult family situations, or due to lack of like-individuals in their location. When we think of what it means to have a livable life beyond just the biological necessities, we think of what each individual needs to be happy, or, at least, to not be unhappy in their day-to-day living. The internet is a reflection of its users. So then, it’s not really the internet which allows for a livable life, but rather the individuals who support—or denigrate—other individuals online who impact the quality of others lives. To address the second part of your question, I do think that, especially for young people, to be online, and to communicate on social media, play a role, even if just a small one, in their conception of a livable life. You know, this is how they communicate with one another; it’s how they connect. And so, it seems to me that, for anyone who feels that social media is the primary way for them to connect with other individuals, it is an important part of their “livable life.”
Q: One critique that scholars often have of your work is that they wish it also considered race. How might you adapt your concepts of performativity and a livable life to better include not only gender diversity, but racial diversity?
JB: Like notions of gender, notions of race are also heavily tied into culture and our relationality to other individuals, and like gender, and even sexuality, race is something that is continually formed and reiterated. So I think that one problem with “structural accounts of racialization [is] that [they] refuse to understand the temporality of the structure, the fact that the structure must be reiterated again and again, and that is has a kind of ritual dimension and that its very temporal dimension is the condition of subversion” (Butler qtd in Bell 168). I don’t know that it’s necessarily the theorization of the concepts of performativity and a livable life that needs to change, but perhaps it could be that a more dynamic example of performativity or a more complex discussion of a livable life is one that may consider the impacts of the race on an individual. In truth, “I’m less interested in theories of intersectionality, or in versions of multiculturalism that try to keep processes of gendering and racing radically distinct. I’m much more interested in how one becomes the condition of the other” (Butler qtd in Bell 168).
“#131 Judith Butler.” RWM Radio Web Macba, 27 July 2011, http://rwm.macba.cat/en/sonia/ judith_butler/capsula.
Ahmed, Sara. “Interview with Judith Butler.” Sexualities, vol. 19, no. 4, June 2016, pp. 482–492.
Bell, Vikki. “On Speech, Race, and Melancholia: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Theory, Culture, & Society, vol. 16, no. 2, 1999, pp. 163–174.
Big Think. Judith Butler: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo7o2LYATDc&ab_channel=BigThink. Accessed 7 Oct. 2016.
Butler, Judith. “Performative agency.” Journal of Cultural Economy vol. 3, no. 2, 2010, pp. 147-161.
—. Undoing Gender. Routledge, 2004.
Carstensen, Tanja. “Gender Trouble in Web 2.0: Gender Perspectives on Social Network Sites, Wikis and Weblogs.” International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, vol. 1, no. 1, 2009.
Cook, Julia, and Reza Hasmath. “The Discursive Construction and Performance of Gendered Identity on Social Media.” Current Sociology, vol. 62, no. 7, 2014, pp. 975–993.
Gray, Mary L. Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. New York University Press, 2009.