Feminist Theories: Judith Butler

In “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism,’” Judith Butler claims that power is a never-ending, always-changing structure: “If the subject is constituted by power, that power does not cease at the moment the subject is constituted, for that subject is never fully constituted, but is subjected and produced time and again” (13).

This reminds me of Lacan’s rereading of Freud and, in particular, de Saussure’s Borromean knot used to explain a subject’s progression to and relationship with language. The claim there was that people are never complete, never stable, because they are always trying to get to a place (back to the “real,” the “baby blob”) that they could never possibly do. So, therefore, taking into account both claims, both inside and outside forces will always keep us as struggling, striving, incomplete, people.

This is an idea that needs to hit the masses, and quickly. After all, who doesn’t think we’re supposed to grow and mature until we are complete? How much existential turmoil is spent in this unending and futile process? (Although, I suppose, it keeps therapists in business.) As a twentysomething there has not been a moment when I have not struggled with this. For some years now, I have chalked it up to the fact that, because I am in between generations (I was born in 1981, right on the border between Generation X and the Millenial generation—the cusp, or fence, if you will), there are very few media outlets targeting my age group directly (I have a whole theory on this that I won’t go into now). As a result, there is little outside guidance as to what people my age are supposed to be like and do, except, of course, for having long since graduated college, but that’s a whole other theory, of the social clock…

Anyway. Never a good idea to get me started on generational theory. Where I’m going with this is: we’re led to think that we’ll eventually get out of the rut where we’re confused about our identity and what we’re supposed to be doing with life and stop lamenting the fact that there’s always this weird empty spot in us, but Butler and Lacan/de Saussure assure us that this is all bogus.

I would now like to quote myself, the play I wrote and am directing for my senior project, that deals with some of these issues, and bringing in the myth that it gets better as you get older. One character says: “I was so damn idealistic when I was younger. I mean, I was pretty miserable then, too, but I thought it would get better. I thought it was temporary—everything was temporary. It didn’t matter how much I hated my life, because—I was still young. I still had time. I was taught to believe it would get better. We all were.” Another character says: “I always find myself jealous of people who have their shit together more than I do.[…] I always assumed everyone else had it all figured out. But now I’ve realized that no matter how people present themselves, no one’s ever really… settled.” These characters don’t get any real answers on this, which is an intentional choice. (Most of the characters don’t get any real answers on anything—it’s “slice of life.”) They realize that they can only take solace in the moment, and in each other (awwww…).


Butler critiques identity politics as too limiting; she says that “‘identity’ as a point of departure can never hold as the solidifying ground of a feminist political movement. Identity categories are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary” (15-16).

I’m going to quote and discuss my play again, because there is little else I get to think about this week. One character (Olivia) says: “I think I’m going to be a lonely spinster my whole life.[…] Most of the time I think it’s ok.” Another character (Marie) says: “To be lonely?” Olivia: “The spinster part.[…] I want to go all postmodern and identity politics and reclaim that word.” Marie: “Even though it hasn’t really been offensive for like fifty years?”

This comment(ary) is two-fold (actually, it’s kind of exciting, because I just realized it’s two-fold; before I thought I was doing only one thing with it): Clearly, Olivia is creating a paradox by using “postmodern” and “identity politics” in the same sentence, as compatible beings. She is expressing the absurdity of identity politics, and more specifically, how arbitrary it is. This could feed into Butler’s idea of the subject always changing because it is constructed. The second thing, the one I just realized, is that she’s using this random political ideal to attempt to reconcile a part of her life that she’s frustrated with—how many of us do this? And how often does it work? Rarely, I think, if we’re doing it more for personal reasons than political ones. It kind of goes back to how we’re never complete, and that putting faith in anything outside of ourselves as marks of growth and completeness—particularly random political ideals—is kind of silly.

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