Bodies That Matter
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Bodies That Matter

On the Discursive Limits of Sex

Judith Butler

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eBook - ePub

Bodies That Matter

On the Discursive Limits of Sex

Judith Butler

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In Bodies That Matter, renowned theorist and philosopher Judith Butler argues that theories of gender need to return to the most material dimension of sex and sexuality: the body. Butler offers a brilliant reworking of the body, examining how the power of heterosexual hegemony forms the "matter" of bodies, sex, and gender. Butler argues that power operates to constrain sex from the start, delimiting what counts as a viable sex. She clarifies the notion of "performativity" introduced in Gender Trouble and via bold readings of Plato, Irigaray, Lacan, and Freud explores the meaning of a citational politics. She also draws on documentary and literature with compelling interpretations of the film Paris is Burning, Nella Larsen's Passing, and short stories by Willa Cather.

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DOI: 10.4324/9780203828274-2
If I understand deconstruction, deconstruction is not an exposure of error, certainly not other people’s error. The critique in deconstruction, the most serious critique in deconstruction, is the critique of something that is extremely useful, something without which we cannot do anything.
—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “In a Word,” interview with Ellen Rooney
… the necessity of “reopening” the figures of philosophical discourse … One way is to interrogate the conditions under which systematicity itself is possible: what the coherence of the discursive utterance conceals of the conditions under which it is produced, whatever it may say about these conditions in discourse. For example the “matter” from which the speaking subject draws nourishment in order to produce itself, to reproduce itself; the scenography that makes representation feasible, representation as defined in philosophy, that is, the architectonics of its theatre, its framing in space-time, its geometric organization, its props, its actors, their respective positions, their dialogues, indeed their tragic relations, without over-looking the mirror, most often hidden, that allows the logos, the subject, to reduplicate itself, to reflect itself by itself. All these are interventions on the scene; they ensure its coherence so long as they remain uninterpreted. Thus they have to be reenacted, in each figure of discourse away from its mooring in the value of “presence.” For each philosopher, beginning with those whose names define some age in the history of philosophy, we have to point out how the break with material contiguity is made (il faut repèrer comment s’opère la coupure d’avec la contiguité materielle), how the system is put together, how the specular economy works.
—Luce Irigaray, “The Power of Discourse”
Within some quarters of feminist theory in recent years, there have been calls to retrieve the body from what is often characterized as the linguistic idealism of poststructuralism. In another quarter, philosopher Gianni Vattimo has argued that poststructuralism, understood as textual play, marks the dissolution of matter as a contemporary category. And it is this lost matter, he argues, which must now be reformulated in order for poststructuralism to give way to a project of greater ethical and political value.1 The terms of these debates are difficult and unstable ones, for it is difficult to know in either case who or what is designated by the term “poststructuralism,” and perhaps even more difficult to know what to retrieve under the sign of “the body.” And yet these two signifiers have for some feminists and critical theorists seemed fundamentally antagonistic. One hears warnings like the following: If everything is discourse, what happens to the body? If everything is a text, what about violence and bodily injury? Does anything matter in or for poststructuralism?
It has seemed to many, I think, that in order for feminism to proceed as a critical practice, it must ground itself in the sexed specificity of the female body. Even as the category of sex is always reinscribed as gender, that sex must still be presumed as the irreducible point of departure for the various cultural constructions it has come to bear. And this presumption of the material irreducibility of sex has seemed to ground and to authorize feminist epistemologies and ethics, as well as gendered analyses of various kinds. In an effort to displace the terms of this debate, I want to ask how and why “materiality” has become a sign of irreducibility, that is, how is it that the materiality of sex is understood as that which only bears cultural constructions and, therefore, cannot be a construction? What is the status of this exclusion? Is materiality a site or surface that is excluded from the process of construction, as that through which and on which construction works? Is this perhaps an enabling or constitutive exclusion, one without which construction cannot operate? What occupies this site of unconstructed materiality? And what kinds of constructions are foreclosed through the figuring of this site as outside or beneath construction itself?
In what follows, what is at stake is less a theory of cultural construction than a consideration of the scenography and topography of construction. This scenography is orchestrated by and as a matrix of power that remains disarticulated if we presume constructedness and materiality as necessarily oppositional notions.
In the place of materiality, one might inquire into other foundationalist premises that operate as political “irreducibles.” Instead of rehearsing the theoretical difficulties that emerge by presuming the notion of the subject as a foundational premise or by trying to maintain a stable distinction between sex and gender, I would like to raise the question of whether recourse to matter and to the materiality of sex is necessary in order to establish that irreducible specificity that is said to ground feminist practice. And here the question is not whether or not there ought to be reference to matter, just as the question never has been whether or not there ought to be speaking about women. This speaking will occur, and for feminist reasons, it must; the category of women does not become useless through deconstruction, but becomes one whose uses are no longer reified as “referents,” and which stand a chance of being opened up, indeed, of coming to signify in ways that none of us can predict in advance. Surely, it must be possible both to use the term, to use it tactically even as one is, as it were, used and positioned by it, and also to subject the term to a critique which interrogates the exclusionary operations and differential power-relations that construct and delimit feminist invocations of “women.” This is, to paraphrase the citation from Spivak above, the critique of something useful, the critique of something we cannot do without. Indeed, I would argue that it is a critique without which feminism loses its democratizing potential through refusing to engage—take stock of, and become transformed by—the exclusions which put it into play.
Something similar is at work with the concept of materiality, which may well be “something without which we cannot do anything.” What does it mean to have recourse to materiality, since it is clear from the start that matter has a history (indeed, more than one) and that the history of matter is in part determined by the negotiation of sexual difference. We may seek to return to matter as prior to discourse to ground our claims about sexual difference only to discover that matter is fully sedimented with discourses on sex and sexuality that prefigure and constrain the uses to which that term can be put. Moreover, we may seek recourse to matter in order to ground or to verify a set of injuries or violations only to find that matter itself is founded through a set of violations, ones which are unwittingly repeated in the contemporary invocation.
Indeed, if it can be shown that in its constitutive history this “irreducible” materiality is constructed through a problematic gendered matrix, then the discursive practice by which matter is rendered irreducible simultaneously ontologizes and fixes that gendered matrix in its place. And if the constituted effect of that matrix is taken to be the indisputable ground of bodily life, then it seems that a genealogy of that matrix is foreclosed from critical inquiry. Against the claim that poststructuralism reduces all materiality to linguistic stuff, an argument is needed to show that to deconstruct matter is not to negate or do away with the usefulness of the term. And against those who would claim that the body’s irreducible materiality is a necessary precondition for feminist practice, I suggest that that prized materiality may well be constituted through an exclusion and degradation of the feminine that is profoundly problematic for feminism.
Here it is of course necessary to state quite plainly that the options for theory are not exhausted by presuming materiality, on the one hand, and negating materiality, on the other. It is my purpose to do precisely neither of these. To call a presupposition into question is not the same as doing away with it; rather, it is to free it from its metaphysical lodgings in order to understand what political interests were secured in and by that metaphysical placing, and thereby to permit the term to occupy and to serve very different political aims. To problematize the matter of bodies may entail an initial loss of epistemological certainty, but a loss of certainty is not the same as political nihilism. On the contrary, such a loss may well indicate a significant and promising shift in political thinking. This unsettling of “matter” can be understood as initiating new possibilities, new ways for bodies to matter.
The body posited as prior to the sign, is always posited or signified as prior. This signification produces as an effect of its own procedure the very body that it nevertheless and simultaneously claims to discover as that which precedes its own action. If the body signified as prior to signification is an effect of signification, then the mimetic or representational status of language, which claims that signs follow bodies as their necessary mirrors, is not mimetic at all. On the contrary, it is productive, constitutive, one might even argue performative, inasmuch as this signifying act delimits and contours the body that it then claims to find prior to any and all signification.2
This is not to say that the materiality of bodies is simply and only a linguistic effect which is reducible to a set of signifiers. Such a distinction overlooks the materiality of the signifier itself. Such an account also fails to understand materiality as that which is bound up with signification from the start; to think through the indissolubility of materiality and signification is no easy matter. To posit by way of language a materiality outside of language is still to posit that materiality, and the materiality so posited will retain that positing as its constitutive condition. Derrida negotiates the question of matter’s radical alterity with the following remark: “I am not even sure that there can be a ‘concept’ of an absolute exterior.”3 To have the concept of matter is to lose the exteriority that the concept is suppose to secure. Can language simply refer to materiality, or is language also the very condition under which materiality may be said to appear?
If matter ceases to be matter once it becomes a concept, and if a concept of matter’s exteriority to language is always something less than absolute, what is the status of this “outside”? Is it produced by philosophical discourse in order to effect the appearance of its own exhaustive and coherent systematicity? What is cast out from philosophical propriety in order to sustain and secure the borders of philosophy? And how might this repudiation return?


The classical association of femininity with materiality can be traced to a set of etymologies which link matter with mater and matrix (or the womb) and, hence, with a problematic of reproduction. The classical configuration of matter as a site of generation or origination becomes especially significant when the account of what an object is and means requires recourse to its originating principle. When not explicitly associated with reproduction, matter is generalized as a principle of origination and causality. In Greek, hyle is the wood or timber out of which various cultural constructions are made, but also a principle of origin, development, and teleology which is at once causal and explanatory. This link between matter, origin, and significance suggests the indissolubility of classical Greek notions of materiality and signification. That which matters about an object is its matter.4
In both the Latin and the Greek, matter (materia and hyle) is neither a simple, brute positivity or referent nor a blank surface or slate awaiting an external signification, but is always in some sense temporalized. This is true for Marx as well, when “matter” is understood as a principle of transformation, presuming and inducing a future.5 The matrix is an originating and formative principle which inaugurates and informs a development of some organism or object. Hence, for Aristotle, “matter is potentiality [dynameos], form actuality.”6 In reproduction, women are said to contribute the matter; men, the form.7 The Greek hyle is wood that already has been cut from trees, instrumentalized and instrumentalizable, artifactual, on the way to being put to use. Materia in Latin denotes the stuff out of which things are made, not only the timber for houses and ships but whatever serves as nourishment for infants: nutrients that act as extensions of the mother’s body. Insofar as matter appears in these cases to be invested with a certain capacity to originate and to compose that for which it also supplies the principle of intelligibility, then matter is clearly defined by a certain power of creation and rationality that is for the most part divested from the more modern empirical deployments of the term. To speak within these classical contexts of bodies that matter is not an idle pun, for to be material means to materialize, where the principle of that materialization is precisely what “matters” about that body, its very intelligibility. In this sense, to know the significance of something is to know how and why it matters, where “to matter” means at once “to materialize” and “to mean.”
Obviously, no feminist would encourage a simple return to Aristotle’s natural teleologies in order to rethink the “materiality” of bodies. I want to consider, however, Aristotle’s distinction between body and soul to effect a brief comparison between Aristotle and Foucault in order to suggest a possible contemporary redeployment of Aristotelian terminology. At the end of this brief comparison, I will offer a limited criticism of Foucault, which will then lead to a longer discussion of Irigaray’s deconstruction of materiality in Plato’s Timaeus. It is in the context of this second analysis that I hope to make clear how a gendered matrix is at work in the constitution of materiality (although it is obviously present in Aristotle as well), and why feminists ought to be interested, not in taking materiality as an irreducible, but in conducting a critical genealogy of its formulation.


For Aristotle the soul designates the actualization of matter, where matter is understood as fully potential and unactualized. As a result, he maintains in de Anima that the soul is “the first grade of actuality of a naturally organized body.” He continues, “That is why we can wholly dismiss as unnecessary the question whether the soul and the body are one: it is as meaningless to ask whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one, or generally the matter [hyle] of a thing and that of which it is the matter [hyle].”8 In the Greek, there is no reference to “stamps,” but the phrase, “the shape given by the stamp” is contained in the single term, “schema.” Schema means form, shape, figure, appearance, dress, gesture, figure of a syllogism, and grammatical form. If matter never appears without its schema, that means that it only appears under a certain grammatical form and that the principle of its recognizability, its characteristic gesture or usual dress, is indissoluble from what constitutes its matter.
In Aristotle, we find no clear phenomenal distinction between materiality and intelligibility, and yet for other reasons Aristotle does not supply us with the kind of “body” that feminism seeks to retrieve. To install the principle of intelligibility in the very development of a body is precisely the strategy of a natural teleology that accounts for female development through the rationale of biology. On this basis, it has been argued that women ought to perform certain social functions and not others, indeed, that women ought to be fully restricted to the reproductive domain.
We might historicize the Aristotelian notion of the schema in terms of culturally variable principles of formativity and intelligibility. To understand the schema of bodies as a historically contingent nexus of power/discourse is to arrive at something similar to what Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish as the “materialization” of the prisoner’s body. This process of materialization is at stake as well in the final chapter of the first volume of The History of Sexuality when Foucault calls for a “history of bodies” that would inquire into “the manner in which what is most material and vital in them has been invested.”9
At times it appears that for Foucault the body has a materiality that is ontologically distinct from the power relations that take that body as a site of investments. And yet, in Discipline and Punish, we have a different configuration of the relation between materiality and investment. There the soul is taken as an instrument of power through which the body is cultivated and formed. In a sense, it acts as a power-laden schema that produces and actualizes the body itself.
We can understand Foucault’s references to the “soul” as an implicit reworking of the Aristotelian formulation. Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish that the “soul” becomes a normative and normalizing ideal according to which the body is trained, shaped, cultivated, and invested; it is an historically specific imaginary ideal (idéal speculatif) under which the body is effectively materialized. Considering the science of prison reform, Foucault writes, “The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the effect of a subjection [assujettissement] much more profound than himself. A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him to existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body.”10
This “subjection,” or assujettissement, is not only a subordination but a securing and maintaining, a putting into place of a subject, a subjectivation. The “soul brings [the prisoner] to existence” and not fully unlike Aristotle, the soul described by Foucault as an instrument of power, forms and frames the body, stamps it, and in stamping it, brings it into being. Here “being” belongs in quotation marks, for ontological weight is not presumed, but always conferred. For Foucault, this conferral can take place only within and by an operation of power. This operation produces the subjects that it subjects; that is, it subjects them in and through the compulsory power relations effective as their formative principle. But power is that which forms, maintains, sustains, an...

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Citation styles for Bodies That Matter
APA 6 Citation
Butler, J. (2011). Bodies That Matter (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Butler, Judith. (2011) 2011. Bodies That Matter. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Butler, J. (2011) Bodies That Matter. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.