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Gender Studies: Anthropology

Repeating Ritual: The Idea Of Performativity

Feminism and gay studies, Foucault and the study of ritual, came together in the work of Judith Butler. In an eclectic theoretical blending of Foucault's discourse analysis, J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words (1962) linguistic pragmatics, and Hegelian dialectics tempered by Louis Althusser's notion of interpolation, Butler demonstrated that the principle of reiteration (etymologically linked to rite and ritual) can be seen in the myriad gestures of daily life. Although her early work implied a degree of voluntarism not present in Austin's theory, Butler's later writings recognize that these gestures or "repeated acts" take place "within a highly rigid regulatory frame," and they produce, for Butler, gendered bodies not only as representations but as materialized and sensuously experienced entities. They do so in two senses. Repetition generates habitual forms that are recognized within the social world; and they subject persons to ideals but in a manner that leaves them relentlessly deficient. Transforming Althusser's notion of ideological hailing as that gesture by which power names and thereby summons a person in the terms that power confers, Butler suggests that all individuals are both hailed and made to bear the unconscious knowledge that they cannot, by definition, achieve the image that power gives to them as ideal. Compulsively enacting the forms that would demonstrate comformity to gender ideals, most train their bodies to become sexually legible. For some, however, a consciousness of the gap between ideal gender and materially actual difference can become the basis for resistance to the sex/gender system.

Butler's work reached anthropology in the wake of Pierre Bourdieu's "practice theory" (1977; see also Morris, 1995; Ortner, 1984) and was often read as the politically radical version of the French sociologist's reinvigorated structuralism. Bourdieu had analyzed what he termed the "doxa" of everyday life and suggested that architectural forms shape and constrain bodily gesture, inculcating dispositions that then cause people to act in ways that exteriorize the social structure. His description of this process in Kabyle villages suggested a necessary complementarity between men's and women's acts as the instruments for realizing a whole world otherwise divided between public and private domains. Bourdieu's notion of practice gave new life to Marcel Mauss's original assertion in 1968 that no bodily act, not even sex, is natural, and that the ideational or symbolic order of a given culture is something that exists in the body. This corporeal unconscious is never fully amenable to objectification in language and is actually dissipated in the moment that it becomes articulate. Unlike Bourdieu's vision of practice, which seemed incapable of explaining change, however, Butler provided a theory of how unconscious bodily sensitivities could become the basis of conscious opposition to the predominating sex/gender system.

Whether in response to Bourdieu or to Butler, the result was a proliferation of works broadly construed as anthropologies of the body. Many of these attempted to examine corporeal practices that appeared to be conspicuously implicated in the unequal distribution of power and the material constraint of women's sexual and sensual capacities. Many were also driven by the ambition to discover the different ways in which women interpreted these practices, so as to discover in them unexpected freedoms or self-experiences that differed from, and perhaps contradicted, the ideological representations of dominant discourse. Here the anthropology of the body met a globalizing feminist consciousness and a new politics of representation.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGender Studies: Anthropology - Kinship And/or Gender?, Rituals Of Becoming: The Making Of Sexual Difference, Feminist Interventions: The Legacy Of The Seventies