Expressivity and performativity: Merleau-Ponty and Butler
Until now post-structuralism and phenomenology are widely regarded as opposites. Contrary to this opinion, I am arguing that they have a lot in common. In order to make my argument, I concentrate on Judith Butler’s poststructuralist concept of performativity to confront it with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological concept of expressivity. While Butler claims that phenomenological theories of expression are in danger of essentialism and thus must be replaced by non-essentialist theories of performativity, I hold that Merleau-Ponty’s concept of expressivity must strictly be understood in anti-essentialist terms. Following this line of interpretation, “expressivity” and “performativity”—as well as phenomenology and post-structuralism—are not opposites but partners in the search for an anti-essentialist gender concept. Consequently, feminist phenomenology turns out to be a non-essentialist approach that combines phenomenological and post-structural insights.
KeywordsJudith Butler Maurice Merleau-Ponty Performativity Expressivity Gender Essentialism Phenomenology Post-structuralism
One of the most recent developments in phenomenology and feminist philosophy is called feminist phenomenology. One of the main characteristics of feminist phenomenology is to regard phenomenology as a helpful resource for feminist philosophy (cf. Stoller et al. 2005). Merleau-Ponty is one of the main resources in this respect. Nevertheless, until now, poststructuralist feminism is especially widely regarded as an opposite to phenomenology. The aim of the paper is to show how close phenomenology and poststructuralism are to each other. For this purpose, I will focus on Judith Butler’s theory of performativity in Gender Trouble (1990) and other early writings (1988) to confront it with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theory of expression in his Phénoménologie de la perception (1945). Butler rejects the notion of expression, because for her it pretends to refer to a pre-existing gender that is finally expressed in acts. Instead of using a concept of expression, she prefers to use a concept of performativity because in her opinion the latter is free of gender essentialism in as much as gender is only constituted by performative acts, acts which are performed. However, the following question arises: Is every philosophical concept of expression intrinsically in danger of gender essentialism and thus incompatible with poststructuralist gender theories based on a concept of performativity? I will argue that this is definitely not the case. Introducing Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological concept of expression, as developed in his Phenomenology of Perception, I will show that “expression” can also be understood in anti-essentialist terms, for “expression” is by its very definition the realization of meaning in the act of “expression”. Following this line of interpretation, expressivity and performativity are not opposites but partners in the search for an anti-essentialist gender concept. Thus, the extraordinary similarity between Butler and Merleau-Ponty in this respect can be read not only as a sign for the current applicability of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology in general but also as a sign for the current applicability of the Phenomenology of Perception in particular. I will first introduce Butler’s theory of performativity (1), followed by an outline of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological theory of expression (2), and I will finally, by way of comparison, come to the conclusion (3) that Butler is falsely identifying the phenomenological theory of expression with essentialism.
1 Butler’s early theory of performativity
Performativity is a key concept in Butler’s poststructuralist concept of gender. She first introduced it in the late 1980s, 2 years before Gender Trouble. Since then performativity has played a central role not only in Gender Trouble (Butler 1990) but also in other texts of the 1990s, such as Bodies that Matter (Butler 1995) and Excitable Speech (Butler 1997). In Gender Trouble Butler is arguing that “gender is performatively produced” by way of regulatory practices (Butler 1990, p. 24). In Bodies that Matter she goes on deepening her argument of the “performative construction of gender”, but now focusing on the issue of the materiality of the body. As she writes in her introduction, her focus is on the relation between “gender performativity” and the “concept of materialization” (Butler 1993, p. 2). While Butler in Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter primarily focuses on gender performativity, in Excitable Speech she applies her concept of performativity to language in general. In particular, she deals with the performativity of hate speech, that is to say, with the performativity of political discourses: “As much as this text seeks to understand the particularities of recent arguments concerning hate speech, it also seeks to outline a more general theory of the performativity of political discourse” (Butler 1997, p. 40).
But another text deserves our attention, namely her early article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” from 1988. For several reasons, this text is of special interest. First, in this article Butler is explicitly concerned with phenomenology, especially with Simone de Beauvoir’s phenomenologically oriented existentialism, and with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body in his Phenomenology of Perception. Second, in this article, Butler is concerned with the relation between phenomenology and feminism. And as the subtitle indicates, she identifies her study as an “Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, asking “How useful is a phenomenological point of departure for a feminist description of gender?” (Butler 1988, p. 522), and thus opens the field for something that a little later on became known as “feminist phenomenology”.1 Third, in her article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” Butler introduces the importance of performativity for a theory of gender, two years before Gender Trouble came out. As such, this text becomes especially important for any analysis that is concerned with her development of the key concept of performativity. As she announces at the very beginning, she wants to show “that what is called gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (Butler 1988, p. 520). Finally, it is here that Butler explicitly reflects upon the difference between performativity and expressivity which is noteworthy in this paper. Thus, it is this text which helps us to understand how Butler conceives the difference between performativity and expressivity and which leads us to the question of the difference or compatibility between the poststructuralist theory of performativity and the phenomenological concept of expressivity. For the reasons mentioned I will confine myself primarily to this text. However, the rejection of an expressive model in general is present in all her publications: it might refer to behavior in general or to cross-dressing in particular, as in Body that Matter (1993, p. 309).
As already mentioned, Butler’s theory of performativity is mainly bound up with a theory of gender. This is also the case with her article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”. Butler’s main thesis in this article consists in the claim that gender is a performative act. That gender is a performative act means that it comes into existence in the very moment of its performance. “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only in the extent that it is performed” (1988, p. 527). Given that gender is real only in the extent that it is performed, Butler’s theory of gender can be characterized as a theory of gender in statu nascendi—a theory of gender in the state of coming into existence. The following argument is crucial for her understanding of gender: If gender comes into existence only in the very moment of its performative constitution, then gender is not something prior to its performative acts. It is this argument that makes Butler’s theory of gender performativity an anti-essentialist approach.
For Butler, neither biological sex nor an interior self does pre-exist gender: “If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured” (1990, p. 141). “If gender attributes […] are performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal” (Butler 1988, p. 528). As Butler some time later similarly says in Gender Trouble, quoting Nietzsche: “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything” (Butler 1990, p. 25).2 And “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (ibid.).3 To put it in terms of expression, gender identities do not exist prior to their expressions.
For this reason Butler distances herself from the theatrical sense of gender performance. Although “gender is always a doing” (Butler 1990, p. 25), this doing can’t be mixed up with what an actor is doing on the stage, for the gendered subject is not playing a role, he or she or any other gender does not express something that would exist prior to its expression. Quoting Butler: “As a consequence, gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior ‘self’, whether that ‘self’ is conceived as sexed or not. As performance which is performative, gender is an ‘act’, broadly construed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority” (Butler 1988, p. 528). In an interview Butler gave to Radical Philosophy in the summer of 1994, she emphasizes that it is important to understand performativity “as distinct from performance” (Butler 1994, p. 33). She points out that it would be a “terrible misrepresentation” of what she wanted to say, to claim that performativity had something to do with performance in the theatrical sense (ibid.). “First, it is important to distinguish performance from performativity: the former presumes a subject, but the latter contests the very notion of the subject”.4 For this same reason Butler does not agree with the sociologist Erving Goffman and his theory of interaction “which posits a self which assumes and exchanges various ‘roles’ within the complex social expectations of the ‘game’ of modern life” (Butler 1988, p. 528).
With respect to our aim, contributing to the relation between Butler and Merleau-Ponty, something else becomes important here. For this very reason Butler is critical of phenomenological theories. As the theatrical sense of performativity fails to understand gender as performative in the above described sense, phenomenology “sometimes appears to assume the existence of a choosing and constituting agent prior to language” (ibid., p. 519) and thus fails to understand gender as constituted through constituting acts. Although phenomenology is based on the phenomenological theory of “acts”, according to Butler it nevertheless presumes an agent that is prior to its acts.5 Seemingly, for the same reason, Butler claims that constitutive phenomenology is based on “individual assumptions”.6 Since gender can’t be conceived as only individually constituted, a “revision of the individual assumptions underlying the more restricted view of constitution acts within phenomenological discourse” is required (ibid., p. 525). Although throughout her paper Butler seems to sympathize with phenomenology and theatre and although she draws from theatrical and phenomenological discourses in the course of making her argument, she clearly distinguishes her approach both from theatrical and phenomenological models: “In opposition to theatrical and phenomenological models which take the gendered self to be prior to its acts, I will understand constituting acts not only as constituting the identity of the actor, but as constituting that identity as a compelling illusion, an object of belief” (ibid., p. 520).
While this sort of criticism is crucial, throughout the text another claim (which is related to the former) comes into play, the claim that theories that deal with a concept of expressivity suffer from the same problem: “This implicit and popular theory of acts and gestures as expressive of gender suggests that gender itself is something prior to the various acts, postures, and gestures by which it is dramatized and known” (ibid., p. 528). By way of introducing the idea of expressivity in relation to the theory of gender, Butler draws another distinction between her approach of gender performativity and phenomenology, the distinction between expressivity and performativity. As the following citation indicates, the concept of performativity stands in opposition to the concept of expressivity. “If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is crucial.” (Butler 1990, p. 141) Concepts of expressivity, according to Butler, presuppose a subject that expresses its identity through individual acts, habits or, for example, bodily gestures.7 Following such an understanding, what is expressed is the result of a preexisting self that ex-presses something from the inner to the outer. Femaleness, for example, seems to be an unchangeable value possessed by a subject and then just simply transferred to the outer. We are not only reminded of the out-dated model of human communication as introduced by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver more than a half century ago which is based on the idea of a one-way process between sender and receiver and a ready-made message,8 but also of the classic theories of language based on philosophy of consciousness. That such a concept of expressivity is totally unsuitable for Butler becomes quite clear when she lets us know that she wants to go “beyond an expressive model of gender” (which is the subtitle of the third section of her article). Acts or the body “express nothing” (Butler 1988, p. 530), Butler clearly claims. “There is, in my view, nothing about femaleness that is waiting to be expressed” (ibid.). Politically seen, there is “a good deal about diverse experiences of women that is being expressed and still needs to be expressed”, “but caution is needed with respect to that theoretical language, for it does not simply report a pre-linguistic experience, but constructs that experience as well as the limits of its analysis” (ibid., pp. 530–531). Theories of expressivity that presuppose either a subject or an essence to be expressed are, and this is Butler’s final judgment, essentialist. With regard to gender theory we must call it gender essentialism.
To fully understand Butler’s theory of performativity another aspect must be mentioned. Butler agrees with the British anthropologist Victor Turner that every social action requires a “performance which is repeated” (ibid., p. 526).9 By “repetition” she means the “reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established” (ibid.).10 Applied to gender, this means that performing gender is both individual and public. Butler points out that the performative must be conceived of as in the double framework of “public action” and “performative act”. As a result, she concludes, gender is neither a choice nor determined by social norms. “As a public action and performative act, gender is not a radical choice or project that reflects merely individual choice, but neither is it imposed or inscribed upon the individual” (ibid.).11 Thus, gender is something in-between voluntarism and determinism. It is not voluntary because it depends on cultural norms, and it is not determined because it requires performative acts. Butler will strictly defend her in-between of voluntarism and determinism also in her later work.12 (This neither-nor position must already let us think of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical strategy of neither-nor underlying his Phenomenology of Perception).
We have seen that, for Butler, performativity and expressivity are two different concepts. Strictly speaking, expressivity works as an opposite to performativity. In confronting “performativity” with “expressivity” she has worked out her preference of performativity over expressivity. In preferring performativity, expressivity turns out to work only as a negative term. It can be called a negative term insofar as it represents only the background from which her concept of performativity has been developed. Insofar as expressivity in her eyes is a concept that doesn’t adequately describe the issue of gender or gender identity, it must be replaced by the concept of performativity. With regard to the problem of gender essentialism Butler concludes that the concept of expressivity is in full danger of essentialism, while the concept of performativity is free of it. So if we take phenomenology as a philosophy that implies a theory of expression, as in Merleau-Ponty and some other phenomenological approaches, then we must say that phenomenology is in danger of essentialism, if we follow Butler’s argument. It is here that I want to turn to Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. In the following, I will focus on his theory of expression in order to examine whether his theory is based on the assumption that something else pre-exists the expression and consequently must be characterized as an essentialist concept.
2 Merleau-Ponty’s concept of expression
Merleau-Ponty was repeatedly concerned with language. Since his theory of language is mostly linked with the theory of expression, it can be argued that his phenomenological theory of expression plays a central role in his phenomenology. It fruitfully starts in his Phenomenology of Perception and continues to be of highest importance in his late works such as The Prose of the World or The Visible and the Invisible, as well as in his collection of works entitled Signs. Now, in his Phenomenology of Perception the chapter “The Body in its Sexual Being” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, pp. 154–185) is of highest importance because it is here that he deals with a notion of expression. In the following I will primarily refer to this chapter.
As I have previously mentioned, Butler’s theory of performativity works for her gender theory. To put it differently, Butler is primarily concerned with gender and conceives it in terms of performativity. At this point, it seems necessary and also interesting to note that although Merleau-Ponty had nothing explicit to say about gender identity, the issues of sexual difference, not to mention the issue of gender performativity, his reflections on expressivity simply arise during his considerations on sexuality.13 It is intriguing that his theory of expression is closely linked to his theory of sexual being (être sexué). Moreover, his idea of expression plays an important role in his theory of sexuality. The central thesis of his chapter “The Body in its Sexual Being” is that sexuality “expresses existence” through bodily being (Merleau-Ponty 1962, p. 166). However, while Butler primarily speaks of gender or gender identity, Merleau-Ponty is primarily concerned with sexuality in a more general way. The difference between sex and gender, one of the main topics of Butler’s philosophy in particular and of gender studies in general, is not something that can be found in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology.14 And while Butler is much more interested in how social norms influence gender constitution, Merleau-Ponty is interested in the relation between sexuality and existence, an issue which seems to be quite underdeveloped in Butler. Further, although Butler became known as a theorist of the body, both with her first study Gender Trouble and in the following study Bodies that Matter, Merleau-Ponty is much more concerned with the body in his Phenomenology of Perception than Butler in her article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”. The chapter, for example, which follows “The Body in its Sexual Being” is at length dedicated to “The Body as Expression, and Speech” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, pp. 174–199) and thus provides us with a full analysis of how exactly the body contributes to meaning production.
The chapter “The Body in its Sexual Being” opens with a detailed discussion of a pathological case study that was first introduced by the Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger in Amsterdam and Groningen in a paper he gave in 1934 (Binswanger 1994, pp. 205–230). It summarizes the case of a young 24 year-old woman who goes to Dr. Binswanger for psychotherapy after losing her ability to speak shortly after a menstruation. As reconstructed during the psychotherapeutic treatment by Ludwig Binswanger, the aphonia was in effect the result of the mother’s prohibition to see the young man she had loved. Merleau-Ponty summarizes this case as follows: “A girl whose mother has forbidden to see again the young man with whom she is in love, cannot sleep, loses her appetite and finally the use of speech” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, p. 160). For him this case is exemplary for how sexuality comes into existence through the body. But instead of reducing existence to sexuality, he is arguing that the sexuality alone can’t explain how the past experiences of the young woman were fixated on her mouth by way of aphonia: “what is ‘fixated’ on the mouth is not merely sexual existence, but, more generally, those relations with others having the spoken word as their vehicle” (ibid.). Exactly as for Binswanger, for Merleau-Ponty the fixation is the result of a broader existential situation in which the woman or the young girl takes part. In losing her speech, the young woman breaks with relational life within the family circle, “more generally, she tends to break with life itself” (ibid.). From the very beginning it seems as if sexuality is always closely linked to the issue of co-existence and not separable from it.15 It is parental prohibition (perhaps also a social norm?, both prominent vocabularies in Butler’s gender theory16) that has influenced the woman’s existence totally, forced her to withdraw herself from her former life. Binswanger and Merleau-Ponty share the opinion that the woman’s aphonia is the result of her resistance against her mother and the world around her in general.
Two aspects are important here: First, his rejection of both a naturalistic and an individualistic interpretation of this kind of psycho-somatic phenomenon (1). Second, the body’s role with regard to the modification of existence (2). These two aspects will lead us back to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of expression (3).
(1) Merleau-Ponty is arguing that the loss of voice is neither a voluntary act nor an anatomical defect; it is neither will nor anatomy that effects the loss of voice. “No more can it be said that the loss of voice is voluntary” (1962, p. 162). The young woman did not willingly decide to lose her voice because even if she wanted to speak she couldn’t do so. Like the psychic processes of forgetting or also in the case of sleep, Merleau-Ponty is arguing, the loss of voice has its origin in an “anonymous force”, a force that is placed on a “lower level than that of ‘will’” (ibid., p. 163). Sleep is not something that can be ordered, it simply “comes”: In a way, I become what I was trying to be (ibid., p. 164). As we can easily follow, the woman’s loss of voice has nothing to do with a simulation or with a deliberate refusal, for the same reason mentioned: the woman could not speak even if she wanted to do so. “Here the girl does not cease to speak, she ‘loses’ her voice as one loses a memory” (ibid., p. 161). And losing one’s memory doesn’t happen by way of voluntary decision—losing one’s memory is far from dependent on one’s will. For the same reason, the young woman does not demonstrate her annoyance or disappointment against her mother in a conscious way. Merleau-Ponty writes: “By losing her voice she does not present a public version of an ‘inner state’, she does not make a ‘gesture’ like that of the head of a state shaking hands with the engine driver and embracing a peasant” (ibid., p. 161). “The girl does not mime with her body a drama played out ‘in her consciousness’” (ibid.). So if the woman ever “expresses” or “demonstrates” something through her symptom then she does so on a “lower level”, a level below the level of consciousness or free will. Similarly, the loss of voice can’t be explained by way of medical or anatomical explanation, Merleau-Ponty argues, since the physical body and the anatomical speech apparatus are totally intact as the medical inspection has found out. Moreover, the fact that the woman gets her voice back after her therapy must be conceived of as indicator for the independency of her aphonia from any physical deficiency. Arguing this way, it becomes clear that Merleau-Ponty rejects both a subject-centered approach and an object-centered approach.
(2) Now, if the loss of voice is independent from consciousness and materiality then what is responsible for these kinds of existential transformations? Following Merleau-Ponty, it is here that the lived body (the “subject” as bodily being) comes into play: “The body’s role is to ensure this metamorphosis” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, p. 164). To say that it is the body that can ensure metamorphoses, as in the case of the young woman just discussed, is to say that the lived body takes over functions we normally ascribe to subjective functions or to objective facts. “The body can symbolize existence because it realizes it and is its actuality” (ibid.). This is a remarkable claim because it suggests the lived body as a means for transformation. Moreover, as the citation indicates, the body itself becomes a kind of speech or a sort of language, insofar as it is able to symbolize existence. It is a sort of symbolization of existence. Finally, there is another reason why this claim is of highest importance. It clearly illuminates Merleau-Ponty’s concept of expression. To say that the body “realizes existence” by way of symbolization does not mean that it “ex-presses” existence, it means that the body is responsible for the realization of existence—it is the very place where existence comes into existence.
How the body expresses existence is of highest importance for our purpose of bringing together Butler and Merleau-Ponty more closely. As Merleau-Ponty says: “But as we shall see the body does not constantly express the modalities of existence in the way that stripes indicate rank, or a house-number a house: the sign here does not only convey its significance, it is filled with it; it is, in a way, what it signifies” (ibid., p. 161, my emphasis). In French: “le signe ici n’indique pas seulement sa signification, il est habité par elle, il est d’une certaine manière ce qu’il signifie” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, p. 188). For a better understanding, Merleau-Ponty refers to Sartre’s notion of “quasi-portrait”, introduced in his phenomenological psychology of the imagination (Sartre 2004, Chap. “Sign and Portrait”, pp. 21–24). For Sartre, quasi-objects are objects in which the sign and its significance are inseparable. For example, wax figures in a wax figure menagerie are such quasi-objects. As a visitor, I do not see a “wax figure” that wants to tell me, “By the way, I’m Barack Obama”; from the point of view of perception I identify the perceived object as “Barack Obama” before I realize that this model is actually only made out of wax. In this case, sign and signification coincide.
In arguing that the body’s expression is different from a certain kind of signification, he supplements his phenomenology of the body with a theory of language. But although the body’s expression has obviously something to do with language, he insists that it represents a special kind of signification. His claim “it is, in a way, what it signifies” becomes crucial for us. If the body’s expression is what it signifies, then Merleau-Ponty is already re-conceptualizing the mere traditional concept of signification. However, if the sign, in a way, is what it signifies then the sign and the signification can’t be separated. The relation between sign and signification is no longer an external one. Consequently, if the relation between the sign and the signification is no longer external, one must also admit that what is expressed is no longer separated from the expression.
It becomes pretty clear now that Merleau-Ponty’s concept of expression differs from the so-called “philosophy of consciousness” (“Bewusstseinsphilosophie”) as well as from models of representation. In philosophies of consciousness, a word simply represents an idea we have in mind before speaking (Frank 1984, p. 269). With respect to language and models of signs, “representation” means that signs represent elementary ideas of the human mind. Given this primary definition, Merleau-Ponty corresponds with the so-called poststructuralist approaches along with the linguistic turn and its underlying refusal of a model of representation in the theory of language. As Manfred Frank has pointed out clearly, the rejection of the theory of representation is one of the main aims of what he has called “neo-structuralism” in his famous lectures What is Neo-structuralism? (ibid., p. 156).
Recognizing Merleau-Ponty’s transformation of the term “expression”, Butler’s interpretation of expression, that the expressed exists before its expression, becomes wrong.
As we have seen, Butler distinguishes between a concept of performativity and a concept of expression. While she prefers performativity due to its anti-essentialist approach, she rejects expressivity, accusing it of being essentialist: While the performative approach claims that nothing pre-exists its performance, the approach of expressivity claims that what is expressed pre-exists its expression. While the performative is a key concept of Butler’s own poststructuralist approach, Butler identifies the concept of expression with phenomenological theories.
(1) My first criticism refers to the assumption that every theory of expression, especially the phenomenological concept of expression, is based on the idea that something else pre-exists its expression and thus is in danger of essentialism. This assumption is definitely wrong. In phenomenology, we can find concepts that do clearly resist such an understanding. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is one of these. Although he makes use of the concept of expression, he doesn’t contend that what is expressed in fact pre-exists its expression. Therefore, if Butler is claiming that theories of expression are based on the idea that something else pre-exists its expression, she wrongly universalizes philosophical concepts of expression. By this sort of generalization she subsumes all theories of expression under one single understanding. She simply ignores those theories that can’t be identified by the model of expression as she has constructed it.
(2) My second criticism is directed at Butler’s use of the term “expression”. It seems as if she understands the term “expression” in a mere literal sense which, in the following, leads her to certain and as I believe misleading conclusions. Indeed, the English or the French term “expression” or “l’expression”, like the German term “Ausdruck”, indicates a more mechanic understanding of what is happening in expressive acts. It assumes that something is pressed or squeezed out, like juice from an orange, mustard from a mustard tube, or toothpaste from a toothpaste tube. Everything is ready to be squeezed out: the juice, the mustard, the toothpaste, and perhaps gender identity or any other essential being. Let me briefly mention another example, an example taken from the beauty industry to be included in the gender issue. At the time I was writing my paper, a new advertising billboard had been put up just in front of my apartment house across the street, visible to me every time I left the house or whenever I looked out of my window. The cosmetic production company “Dove”, a leading global beauty brand manufactured by Unilever in North America, is currently advertising their products as part of their world-wide “Campaign for Real Beauty” which started in 2004. The poster shows a “normal” woman, not really slim, and not really fat, so far an untypical model, and the advertising text says in big letters: “There is real beauty in every woman. Just let it out!” (my translation). Something is always already inside ourselves and simply in need of being expressed or squeezed out like body lotion from the bottle. The “essential woman” in the form of beauty is merely hidden inside a woman and in need of being transported from the inside to the outside. What these examples show is the more literal understanding of expression, each in danger of essentialism if applied to gender. But as I would argue, the literal sense of the term “expression” is not imperative. It is not the word “expression” that makes it unsuitable for our intellectual purposes but the use of it. It depends on the interpretation if a concept of expression represents an essentialist concept or not. As I have shown, Merleau-Ponty resists such a literal understanding of expression. Just as the term “performance” should not be mixed up with the theatrical sense of the performative, as Butler emphasizes repeatedly, the term “expression” should not be taken in the mere literal sense. To take “expressivity” in a more literal sense would be as wrong as the more literal understanding of “performativity”, e.g., assuming that there is somebody who only performs something. Just as Butler rejects the very assumption that somebody exists before the performative act, Merleau-Ponty rejects the assumption that somebody exists before his or her expressive acts.
I guess that Butler’s critical attitude towards theories of expression is strongly influenced by Foucault’s aversion to expression throughout his work.17 However, given that Foucault has influenced Butler also in this respect, it must not follow that his criticism of the idea of expression, which also includes phenomenology, goes without any contradiction. Rather, Foucault’s criticism of expression, as others have already shown, is very often superficial in character. Moreover, although the French poststructuralist tradition since the 1970s of the last century is skeptical of theories of expression, it is not so as a whole. Deleuze, for example, is such an exception.18 Although Deleuze was one the most prominent critics of phenomenology in his time, he did not decide to abandon the concept of expression, rather he was transforming it, as was Merleau-Ponty.19
(3) My third and even more important criticism refers in more detail to the assumption that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological theory of expression is in danger of essentialism. Again, essentialism in this context means, following Butler’s understanding, that something pre-exists its expression. What is supposed to pre-exist its expression must be identified as essentialist. I fully agree with Butler’s characterization of essentialism and I also agree with her claim that gender is not something that exists before its realization, whether it be called performance or expression or whatever. Indeed, essentialist gender theories fail to understand how something like gender is constructed or constituted. They presuppose what they actually should try to explain. However, I strictly reject the assumption that Merleau-Ponty’s theory of expression can be identified with any sort of essentialism. As I have shown in part II on Merleau-Ponty, his theory of expression is explicitly based itself on a critique of those theories of expression that claim that something else pre-exists its expression, and thus is arguing against essentialist approaches.
Paradoxically, this means that his theory of expression is exactly directed against what Butler accuses him of.
Finally, if we want to summarize the previous criticisms and results, the following conclusions can be drawn.
(1) First, it turns out that Merleau-Ponty and Butler share the same interest in a critical concept of expression, supporting instead a concept in which meaning is not said to be something prior to its expression but the result of it. But while Butler rejects the concept of expression as a whole, Merleau-Ponty maintains the concept of expression. He is not rejecting expression but redefining it. In any case, Butler’s rejection and Merleau-Ponty’s redefinition are motivated by the same theoretical insufficiency. In recognizing their critical starting-point, it can be argued that Butler’s theory of performativity and Merleau-Ponty’s theory of expression share a rejection of essentialist theories.
(2) Not only do Butler and Merleau-Ponty share the same critical understanding of traditional theories of expression, but something else is even more obvious, and thus becomes vital: They not only agree with the rejection of traditional theories of expression, but they also come to similar conclusions. In fact, both philosophers introduce similar concepts of meaning and meaning production. That is to say, Butler and Merleau-Ponty agree with the idea that meaning comes into existence at the same the time as it is produced. Their focus is on meaning in statu nascendi, a Latin term that can be often found in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. Meaning is not a stable value but something continually constituted. Thus, if Butler and Merleau-Ponty not only go hand in hand with their criticism of a pre-existing meaning but also introduce similar alternatives to traditional theories of expression, then the claim that the concept of performativity and the concept of expressivity are contradictory approaches, is wrong. Rather, it turns out that Butler and Merleau-Ponty are intellectual partners. They are more closely related to each other than Butler wants us to believe. Also, with respect to what they argue against and with respect to which alternatives they suggest, I believe that it doesn’t really matter if the one speaks of performativity and the other of expressivity. Given their commonalities, the degree of correspondence, their differences seem to be less important in some respects. It seems to me that the difference between Butler and Merleau-Ponty merely lies in a different focus and not so much in a completely different approach.
Surely, one can argue that there are differences between those two philosophers, differences that should not be ignored. I do agree. I agree that they differ from each other in some important respects. One of the most obvious differences is the fact that Merleau-Ponty is not so concerned with discourses but more with the lived body. In contrast to Merleau-Ponty, discourses are crucial in Butler’s concept of performativity. As she pointed out in an interview 1994: “So what I am trying to do is think about performativity as that aspect of discourse that has the capacity to produce what it names” (Butler 1994, p. 33). But it wasn’t my primary aim in this paper once again to outline the differences between Butler and Merleau-Ponty. This is what many researchers have already done and still do—the struggle between poststructuralism and phenomenology is well-known. My primary aim was to critically examine Butler’s claim that performativity and expressivity, and therefore poststructuralism and phenomenology, are contrary up to the point that they do not correspond to each other. In arguing that Butler and Merleau-Ponty have a lot in common, I was hoping to demonstrate that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is undoubtedly compatible with poststructural feminism.20
It was Butler herself who already spoke in the 1980s of “feminist phenomenology” respectively of “phenomenological feminism”, namely in her article “Sexual Ideology and Phenomenological Description. A Feminist Critique of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception” (Butler 1989).
Cf. Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogie der Moral, KSA 9, p. 279: “Es giebt kein ‘Sein’ hinter dem Thun, Wirken, Werken; der ‘Thäter’ ist zum Thun bloss hinzugedichtet,—das Thun ist alles”. In Bodies that Matter Butler says: “There is no ‘I’ who stands behind discourse” (Butler 1993, p. 225).
Note that Butler in Gender Trouble puts the word “expressions” under quotation marks, indicating her skepticism for the concept of expression. However, in contrast to her article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” Butler goes on with a discussion of Luce Irigaray’s notion of the feminine and thus neglects to explicate her skepticism for the term “expression” (ibid.).
She adds that toward the beginning of her final chapter “Critically Queer” in Bodies that Matter she was trying to clarify this (cf. Butler 1993, pp. 223–242). Following the Althusserian term “interpellation”, she argues that the “I” “only comes into being through being called, named, interpellated”, “and this discursive constitution takes place prior to the ‘I’” (ibid., p. 225).
While Butler assigns Husserl and Merleau-Ponty to the more problematic approaches of phenomenology, she excludes Beauvoir’s phenomenological philosophy, claiming that she is in an innovative way “appropriating and reinterpreting this doctrine of constituting acts from the phenomenological tradition” (1988, p. 519).
By “individual assumptions” Butler means not only individual acts performed by individual persons, she adds acts by social groups such as families (Butler 1988, p. 526).
Also in Bodies that Matter Butler rejects the “expressive model of drag, which holds that some interior truth is exteriorized in performance” (Butler 1993, p. 234). Cf. also: “Counter to the notion that performativity is the efficacious expression of a human will in language, this text seeks to recast performativity as a specific modality of power as discourse” (Butler 1993, p. 187).
Cf. Shannon and Weaver (1949).
Butler cites his work Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (Turner 1974).
Cf. Butler (1990, p. 140) with almost the same words.
Please note that Butler in this passage explicitly rejects the poststructuralist view that culture “is inscribed upon the individual” (ibid.).
See, for example, Bodies that Matter, where she is saying that construction is “neither a single act nor a causal process initiated by a subject and culminating in a set of fixed effects” (Butler 1993, p. 10). However, cf. Veronica Vasterling who is arguing that Butler has not freed herself from lingual determinism (Vasterling 1999, 2001).
Merleau-Ponty speaks of sexuality in general, without differentiating between female or male sexuality or without taking into consideration that there are different gender identities. This was one of the reasons why Merleau-Ponty earned substantial critique from feminist theorists. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Butler although she speaks of gender, she (also) does so in a more general manner. For this reason her concept of gender remains a general, unspecified term. To speak of gender in this general manner means nothing else than that gender identity is something historical, constituted through social or other processes—however, it says nothing specific about whose gender it is. On the side of Merleau-Ponty, if he speaks of sexuality in a general way, this does not per se indicate that sexuality is unhistorical or independent from social processes or norms. Consequently, both theorists remain in a sphere of generality, each of them in a specific way. And instead of criticizing their use of generality, we should better reconsider this form of generalization, asking how we can philosophically benefit from such a usage?
This might be due to the fact that the French language does not distinguish between sex and gender. In both cases the word “sexuality” is to be used. For further specification the French say “sexual identity” as a synonym for gender or gender identity. But although the difference between sex and gender doesn’t play a systematic role in Merleau-Ponty it must be added that sexuality in his phenomenology of the body is indeed not restricted to its bodily function. He explicitly rejects the idea that sexuality is to be regarded as a “type of bodily function” (cf. Merleau-Ponty 1962, p. 157). This is to say, that it is already more than a mere bodily function. By way of its “original intentionality” (ibid.), sexuality in Merleau-Ponty exceeds the meaning of a mere bodily function.
As I have shown elsewhere, Merleau-Ponty was always critical of pan-psychoanalytic approaches of Freudianism (Stoller 1999). For this reason it seems only logical that he emphasizes the interrelatedness of sexuality and co-existence.
What prohibition is concerned, refer to the chapter “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix” in Gender Trouble (Butler 1990, pp. 35–78).
See, for example, Archaeology of Knowledge, where he says that we must give up the idea that discourses [= language] are a sort of expression. See also number 85 of his Dits et Écrits, volume 2, where he critically reflects upon his early study on madness, saying that in these early times he was still too much orientated toward the idea of expression (Foucault 1994).
See his study on Spinoza, Expression in Philosophy (Deleuze 1990). One of the most illuminating passages is his “paradox of expression” in the same study: “The paradox is that at once ‘the expressed’ does not exist outside of the expression and yet bears no resemblance to it, but is essentially related to what expresses itself as distinct from the expression itself” (ibid., p. 333). For a comparison between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty with respect to their challenge of transcendental phenomenology, see Lawlor (2003).
In opposition to Lawlor, however, I do not believe that Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception “does not free itself from subjectivity”, and that only the late work The Visible and the Invisible might challenge the more problematic (subjectivist) tendencies within phenomenology (Lawlor 2003, p. 93), because identifying Phenomenology of Perception with subjectivism means to ignore the anti-subjectivist tendencies Merleau-Ponty was defending in his study.
The results of my past research on feminist phenomenology have recently been published (Stoller 2010).
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