Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Is-ness of "Is"

The other day I was on a GLB panel addressing an education class, and the perennial question came up: What should you do when a student says That's so gay?

Aside from the usual expressions of deep concern, which I've written about before, one of the other speakers said that it's important to tell kids the "real meaning of 'gay.'"  I didn't know whether to address that, but I wish now that I had.

There is no "real meaning of 'gay.'"  Words don't have "real" meanings.  His remark was especially funny given the fraught recent history of the word.  It may be that this guy, who's in his late 40s I think, is a bit too young to remember the fuss that swept America after 1970 over homosexuals' brutal appropriation of "gay," a nice innocent little word that you can't use in front of children anymore because of Teh Political Correctness.  If "gay" had a real meaning, it wouldn't be "homosexual," it would be one of the older ones, like "happily excited" or "keenly alive and exuberant."  Like it or not, using "gay" to mean stupid, uncool, weird, is as "real" as any other meaning.  It appears that Merriam-Webster hasn't caught up with the newer meaning yet, though it has already been with us for about thirty years.

It happened that this week I finally began reading Gender Trouble, Judith Butler's classic of queer and gender theory, originally published by Routledge in 1990.  The copy I'm reading was printed in 1999, and includes a ten-years-after preface by Butler.  So far -- I'm going slowly, because I have so much else I need to read and this isn't the kind of book one dashes through in any case -- the preface is interesting, and I'll probably be writing more about the book as I proceed.

Butler wrote a few things that I liked quite a lot.  But then I came to this:
Much of my work in recent years has been devoted to clarifying and revising the theory of performativity that is outlined in Gender Trouble.  It is difficult to say precisely what performativity is not only because my own views on what “performativity” might mean have changed over time, most often in response to excellent criticisms, but because so many others have taken it up and given it their own forms [xiv].
Performativity, like any other complex abstraction, "is" not anything.  From what I've read elsewhere over the years, it seems that Butler had not really thought through what she meant by "performativity" when she wrote the book; and as she says here, her views on the subject have changed over time.  She goes on to say that her usage was influenced by Jacques Derrida, which surprised me a little because I thought that the word was popularized by the philosopher John L. Austin and his followers.  It seemed to me that (as is commonly the case in and out of academia) many of the people who appropriated the term from Gender Trouble didn't bother to understand what Butler meant, or thought she might mean, by it.

So I'm not saying that Butler, or other writers, don't know "the real meaning" of "performativity."  To some extent you can, for analytic purposes, define a term to mean anything you like, though it takes great care and effort to leave out the historical baggage that the term carries with it.  This happened to Richard Dawkins, for example, in The Selfish Gene: though he insisted that he wasn't using "selfish" to mean what it does in everyday discourse, in practice the everyday associations kept sneaking back in.  "Homosexual" ("as we think of it today") is another case.  And as I've complained before, many academics seem to believe that meanings inhere in words, and need only to be excavated to find what is already, mystically there.  It appears to me that Butler in that passage was making the same error.