Lectures: Butler (Beauvoir)

Lectures: Butler (Beauvoir)


I. Prefatory Material

A. Why I chose this piece

  • I wanted to read something a work by a woman for various reasons
  • Philosophy generally tends to be dominated by men even today
  • I also wanted to look at some broadly feminist philosophy—very important movement in 20th century philosophy
  • But I also wanted to look a little more concretely at how existentialism can be applied to particular sorts of circumstances
  • All of this made Beauvoir a perfect choice.
  • Unfortunately her own philosophical works are too technical and difficult to read—like the end of Sartre—or are not quite focused enough, so I thought it might be better to read Butler’s summary of her main philosophical contributions
  • But even Butler can be hard to read, so take it slowly.

B. Beauvoir’s life

  • Born January 1908 in Paris
  • Attended Catholic schools
  • Watched her mother doing menial during WW2
  • Went to Catholic school, eventually to Sorbonne, where she met Sartre
  • Both received their degrees in philosophy in 1929, Sartre placing first, her second
  • Also very active in French resistance during WW2
  • Also spent her life writing, mainly long studies, novels, and the like
  • Important works: The Ethics of Ambiguity (1946) and The Second Sex (1949)
  • Special rapporter to U.N. during Vietnam war, cried out against American war crimes
  • She and Sartre were together for 51 years, but never married and never lived together
  • Always calls herself an existentialist, never a feminist
  • She didn’t call herself a philosopher, but Sartre thought she was a better philosopher than he

C. Judith Butler

  • currently a professor at UC-Berkeley
  • becoming a very important philosopher in her own right

II. Beauvoir’s contributions to feminist philosophy

  • Two fold: (1) documenting the oppression of women through appeal to literature, science, psychology, history and anthropology, and (2) developing a broadly feminist theory of what it means to be an embodied being, and in particular, a being with a gendered body
  • The first is, of course, extremely important, but would be more relevant in a history or sociology class
  • The second, is of philosophical importance. It represents an essential part of phenomenology. There are certain essential or fundamental structures of experience. Sartre tells us that some of them are awareness of our freedom, awareness of god’s nonexistence, etc. Now we can add embodiment and genderedness.
  • Sartre had done a little on the phenomenology of the body; the philosopher Merleau-Ponty had done a bit more, but they understood the body in very universalist terms.
  • In contradistinction to these abstract characterizations, Beauvoir offers some more concrete and recognizable insight, via a focus on gender and the role this plays in embodiment
  • Two significant claims as a part of this theory of gender: (1) the body is not a natural fact but an historical idea, and (2) one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman
  • These require closer scrutiny

III. Body as Historical Idea

1. Sex/Gender distinction

  • Sex refers only to the biological/physiological differences between men and women, before these differences are interpreted and given significance within a cultural context. This is simply brute facticity.
  • As an existentialist, Beauvoir is not content with understanding anything as such. To truly understand something, is not only to understand its physical properties, but the roles it plays in people’s lives: how they create plans, relate to one another, their desires and attitutdes towards it
  • Obviously, there is a lot going on there with this topic. Gender refers to the differences between the sexes as understand, enacted and practiced within the lives of individuals within a certain cultural setting .
  • Gender is obviously the more important concept here.

2. Gender as cultural construction

  • Obviously, it would seem crazy to say that society determines what sexes there are, and what sex a person is
  • But gender does seem to be a cultural invention. It is society or culture that determines what these biological differences signify and what they mean in terms of what a person is, how he or she should feel, react, plan, etc.
  • To understand what it is to have a body must be to understand what it is to have a gender: to have a sex within a specific, located cultural context that provides biology with meaning
  • But people forget the difference between sex and gender and pretend as if all there is is sex—that the differences in gender are completely a result of the differences in sex, and that therefore, gender is a purely natural fact
  • Contrary to this, Beauvoir argues that one is not born, but becomes a woman (or man)

III. One Becomes a Woman

1. Problems with this locution

  • Who is it that becomes a woman? Is there some self that exists prior to gender and chooses it?
  • In what sense does a person really become, in the sense of choose, a gender if we are labeled a gender at birth and not able really to choose anything else?

2. Gender is active

  • Gender is an achievement. Each of us chooses to live as a certain gender
  • I am not a certain gender. I become that gender. This is an ongoing process. Each moment, I live that gender through my choices and actions.
  • It is not passive—it is not something that happens to us.
  • Other feminists have talked this way—gender is constructed, we are made into women, etc., but this is imprecise
  • Gender is something we do, not something we are
  • This becoming is never over. There is never a point in which a person has become and now is a woman.
  • In bad faith, we may pretend that it’s not a conscious choice, that it is something we simply are.
  • But this is a kind of posturing, it requires effort. It is an illusion.
  • It’s almost like an act. We have to “put on a face” and put effort into being a “real man” or a “natural woman” from moment to moment

3. Cultural Constraints

  • But of course, we can’t just become any gender we want whenever we want
  • Remember that it’s a core tenet of existentialism that one cannot be something or have a certain trait unless others recognize one as such
  • Thus I can’t just choose to be a woman. Society won’t allow it.
  • We know the terror and shame of “doing gender wrong”
  • This is obviously a strong part of our facticity
  • We do not pre-exist our gender. We are born named to a certain gender, and we don’t really have the choice to be a different gender.
  • But this is like being born into a war for Sartre. We cannot choose to be not in a war, but we still choose the war by living it. We cannot choose what genders to be at will, but we still choose our gender by living it in the precise ways that we do.

IV. Women, Subjects and the Other

  • The notion of “the Other” takes one somewhat of a different meaning on Beauvoir’s philosophy
  • The Other is always constrasted with the self, the subject. The Other is defined in contradistinction to oneself, and vice versa,
  • Beauvoir, however, talks about the subject as it is understood as a societal concept.
  • Society has developed presuppositions about what is normal and what is not. The expected subject of society is male. The male is the norm.
  • Discourse in society about what it means to be a subject presupposes men.
  • This discourse understands men as the subject. They are conscious, free beings.
  • Women are regarded as different, and fundamentally as objects .
  • Involves a contradiction. Women are in effect asked to use their freedom and subjectivity to become objects, to become unfree, to become objects of desire, etc.

V. “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”

1. The Popular Myth

  • Gender is a an essence—i.e. men and women are kinds of substances. If I am a man, that is an essential property that I have. It is not based on my activities. Whatever I do or choose, I have the essential property of being a man.
  • There is an eternal and unchanging form of man and women that preexists our births and is independent of our choices and lives
  • Sex, gender and sexual orientation go hand in hand. One determines the others.
  • This fact about me—my being a certain sort of person—causally explains what I do. I do certain things “because I am a man.” You might do things “because you are a woman”. Your actions are to be explained by your Gender, not vice versa
  • Acting a certain way, feeling a certain way, having certain desires are perfectly natural for members of a given sex. Gender is natural.
  • Thus, Aretha’s pleasure seems like a natural expression of her sex. Everything about the pleasure she feels is natural. It just comes from her being a woman
  • According to this theory, certain ways of acting are right or wrong given sex. An effeminate man is being unnatural or somehow acting wrongly. Nature dictates a certain way of acting.

2. What’s wrong with the Myth

  • Why does Aretha want to feel like a natural woman if she is one. Is there some awareness that the myth isn’t true?
  • To have sex, gender and sexual desire to all fit together in one package is a powerful desire or fantasy that we have, but it isn’t really true.
  • Consider existentialist anguish. We know that our behavior is not natural, it isn’t controlled by instincts or genetics, etc., but is constant choice.
  • The desire to have our actions “come natural” is a constant theme in existentialism, but its an illusory goal in any context. This is no different.
  • “Aretha, then, doesn’t dispute Beauvoir, but gives us some understanding of the emotional pull of the illusion of a natural and substantial gender identity.”

3. No substantial gender

  • Gender is not an essence. It is not an “thing” that exists independent of our acts and choices. It does not control us. It does not make us do what we do.
  • Like Sartre’s critique of a substantial self. Remember that Sartre said that there is no person idependent of his/.her choices. There is no “real me” independent of what I do. Analogously, there is “real gender” independent of my acting and living in a certain way.

VI. Progress

1. If I act in an “unnatural fashion” I in effect begin to reconceptualize gender boundaries

  • There are certain aspects to the gender situation I can’t—people will see me as a man
  • But I can change what masculinity is through how I act… by acting in way different than traditional masculinity is, I play a part in changing what masculinity is

2. Over time, by acting certain ways, we can change gender, and even create new gender categories

  • e.g. femme, butch

3. A big part of it is changing vocabularly

  • “masculine” and “feminine” need to be more fluid
  • Thinghood as applied to gender needs to replaced with active vocabulary
  • eventually change the significance of gender and sex in society

4. There is constraint, but it is cultural, not biological, and is subject to confusion and inevitable demise


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