Judith Butler

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Judith Butler's 1993 book, Bodies that Matter, is generally recognized as one of the founding texts of the field of gender studies. Throughout this work, Butler stresses the concept of gender as performative. That is to say, gender is a "discursive resignification" 1 that allows individuals to place themselves in relation to social constructs of power through the repetition of symbolic gestures.

While Nella Larson's novel, Passing, has been recognized as an allegory for the failures of the pedagogy of white male privilege in a society that produces the tragic social position of the mulatto (Butler 173). 2 In her essay on Passing, Butler takes a perspective on this "regularized and constrained repetition of norms" (Butler 95) which overlays both racial and gendered interpellations or ascriptions of sexuality. Specifically focusing on representations of miscegenation as contrasted with the homoeroticism implicit in Larsen's narrative voice, Butler shows the parallels between both forms of discrimination. The constraints of sexuality and race represented in the text are such that they offer a way to read the racialization of sexual conflict as it is concerned with the "regulation of a racially pure reproduction" (Butler 167). What can and cannot be spoken, what can and cannot be publicly exposed is linked with the larger question of the dangers of public exposure of both color and desire. This linkage signifies something other than a list of attributes separated by those proverbial commas (gender, sexuality, race, class), that usually mean that we have not yet figured out how to think the relations we seek to mark(Butler 168)


"Clare, who passes as white, not only flaunts but hides - indeed, is always hiding in that very flaunting" (Butler 169)

For the observer, Clare's passing is an open offer for them to join her in her disregard of racial norms of segregation. When Clare seduces Dave Freeland at a party, her "seduction works through putting into question both the sanctity of marriage and the clarity of racial demarcations." (Butler 169) She does so through the right of her beauty and charm, "...because Clare had a trick of sliding down ivory lids over astonishing black eyes and then lifting them suddenly and turning on a caressing smile" (Larsen 93) "It is [Clare's] changeability itself, the dream of a metamorphosis, where that changeableness signifies a certain freedom, a class mobility afforded by whiteness that constitutes the power of that seduction." (Butler 170)

Three assertions by Butler acknowledge the deceptive nature of passing while offering an interpretation of the passer which does not presuppose a lie. They are offered here without further comment, so as to avoid any suspicion that the author is attempting to sway the reader's opinion on the material:

 1. Clare exploits Bellew's need to see only what he wants to see, working not so much the appearance of whiteness, but the  
    vacillation between black and white as a kind of erotic lure. (Butler 172)
 2. Clare passes not only because she is light-skinned, but because she refuses to introduce her blackness into conversation, and 
    so withholds the conversational marker which would counter the hegemonic presumption that she is white. (Butler 171)
 3. It is what Clare withholds in conversation that permits her to "pass" (Butler 176).

Still, it is not clear that Clare's racial status is not known. "Before Bellew knows that Clare is black he regularly calls her 'Nig,' and yet, if he can call her that and remain her husband, he cannot know. In this sense, she defines the fetish, an object of desire about which one says, "I know very well that this cannot be, but I desire this all the same," a formulation which implies its equivalence: "Precisely because this cannot be, I desire it all the more." And yet Clare is a fetish that holds in place both the rendering of Clare's blackness as an exotic source of excitation and the denial of her blackness altogether." (Butler 171)

Where race itself is figured as a contagion transmissible through proximity, if Bellew were to associate with blacks, the boundary of his own whiteness, as well as that of his children, would become permeable. And yet his own racist passion requires this association: it is only by a disavowal of blackness that his whiteness can be constituted. Although he claims that he would never associate with African-Americans, he requires this association and its disavowal for an erotic satisfaction that is indistinguishable from a desire to display his own racial purity. This desire being brought about by the socially constructed norm of a "protected site of a racialized version of the species in pursuit of a hegemony through perpetuity, that requires and produces a normative heterosexuality in its service." (Butler 167) As Brian reiterates, this is the "instinct of the race to survive and expand." (Larsen 56)

Bellew is permitted by Clare's agency to play with the uncertain border between 'degradation and deification'. Through his racialization of Clare's identity he justifies his claim to white male privilege. Clare can be seen as Bellew's racial 'beard'. In this way she is symbolically subordinated by him, while in reality he is psychically dependent on her. In the end, when Clare's veneer of whiteness is shattered, Bellew's shield is struck down as well. It is this "specter of a racial ambiguity that he must subordinate and deny to secure his whiteness through producing black women as the necessary and impossible object of desire". (Butler 173)

Irene's erotic relation to Clare participates in a kind of exoticism that is not fully different from Bellew's. (Butler 174)

Irene finds Clare, finds her beautiful, but at the same time finds Brian finding Clare beautiful. (Butler 168) But does Irene find Brian finding Clare beautiful to be beautiful? Perhaps Deborah McDowell and even Judith Butler take this angle a little far, but certainly, Irene sees in Clare's sensuality a sexual freedom which she feels is immoral. Irene both enjoys and fears Clare's beauty. She does not feel secure enough to step out of the repressive structure of male dominated society and yet envies Clare's agency and self-empowerment.

In Irene's eyes, family and race are conflated. Irene sees that Clare passes as white not merely on occasion, but in her life and in her marriage, and this threatens Irene with the possibility that the barriers of her own bourgeois family could be less than solid. "It is [Clare's] risk taking, articulated at once as a racial crossing and sexual infidelity, that alternately entrances Irene and fuels her moral condemnation of Clare with renewed ferocity." (Butler 169) By condemning Clare, Irene enforces her own internal conceptualizations of race and gender which are centered around a repressive Victorian sexual ethic and a class based view of racial uplift.

"To the extent that Irene desires Clare, she desires the trespass that Clare performs, and hates her for the disloyalty that that trespass entails." (Butler 179)


When Irene's conversation falters, the narrator refers to the sudden gap in the surface of language as "Queer" or as "queering". At the time, it seems, "queer" did not yet mean homosexual, but it did encompass an array of meanings associated with the deviation from normalcy which might well include the sexual.

"To queer" has a history of meaning: to quiz or ridicule, to puzzle, but also, to swindle and to cheat, something short of proper conversation, a longing to be freed of propriety, a feeling that something is just not quite right. Clare describes her aunts as queer, noting that "they forbade [her] to mention Negroes to the neighbors, or even to mention the south side." (Larsen 27) As a term for betraying what ought to remain concealed, "queering" works as the exposure within language - an exposure that disrupts the repressive surface of language - of both sexuality and race. (Butler 176)

This "queering" seems to be a form of interpellation, that is a forcing into discourse or naming of its subject. "Queering is what upsets and exposes passing; it is the act by which the racially and sexually repressive surface of conversation is exploded, by rage, by sexuality, by the insistence on color." (Butler 177) It is this insistence that represents the demand for the price that suffocates Irene, but which Clare ignores to her own downfall.


In an exploration of the sacrifices of passion, Butler focuses on the Freudian concepts of ego and super-ego. Citing the myth of Narcissus, she shows how "idealization... is always at the expense of the ego who idealizes." (Butler 180) Insofar as the object of adoration carries the displaced narcissism of the observer, the adored object must withhold that self-love from the observer. "The one I idealize is the one who carries for me the self-love that I myself have invested in that one. And accordingly, I hate that one, for he/she has taken my place even as I yielded my place to him/her, and yet I require that one, for he/she represents the promise of the return of my own self-love. Self-love, self-esteem is thus preserved and vanquished at the site of the ideal." (Butler 180)

Butler defines the ego-ideal and the super-ego as regulatory mechanisms by which social ideals are psychically sustained. "The ego designates the psychic experience of being seen and the super-ego, that of seeing, watching, exposing the ego,... this watching agency is not the same as the idealization which is the ego-ideal; it stands back both from the ego-ideal and the ego, and measures the latter against the former and always, always finds it wanting." (Butler 181)

She refutes Marxist and Freudian concepts of psychoanalytic feminism that place differences of sexuality as being more fundamental than other kinds of difference. "If, as Norma Alarcon has insisted, women of color are "multiply interpellated," called by many names, constituted in and by that multiple calling, then this implies that the symbolic domain, the domain of socially constituted norms, is composed of racializing norms, and that they exist not merely alongside gender norms, but are articulated through one another." (Butler 182)

Citing Freud's remark that the super-ego, if left fully unrestrained, will fully deprive the ego of its desire for the super-ego she uses Larsen's text to show how this deprivation leads to either psychic or physical death. In this way Clare's death comes with the exposure of the ego to the ego-ideal, it "marks the success of a certain symbolic ordering of gender, sexuality and race, as it marks as well the sites of potential resistance." (Butler 183) When Bellew observes Clare in Harlem he must measure her blackness against his ideal of whiteness and finds in her failure to pass his own failure to maintain a tenuous hold on racial purity. Irene, meanwhile, is compelled to halt Clare's sexual freedom in order to maintain her own ideal of sexual purity, an ideal which is itself produced by a fear of being "sexually degraded and endangered by the very terms of white masculinism that Bellew represents." (Butler 184)

It is Irene's psychic death that informs this approach to a psychology of Nella Larsen's Passing: "Irene fails to realize that Clare is as constrained as she is, that Clare's freedom could not be acquired at the expense of Irene, that they do not ultimately enslave each other." (Butler 184) She gives into her fears and the demands of white male hegemony in order to obtain an illusion of 'security'. "Trapped by a promise of safety through class mobility, Irene accepted the terms of power which threatened her, becoming its instrument in the end." (Butler 185) It is as if she is offering up her sexuality as 'protection money' for the mafia of white male heteronormativity, purchasing her elevated class status by accepting the problematic concepts of white cultural superiority as inevitable.

In closing, Butler offers a constructive appeal for resolution of these kinds of internal conflicts. "Perhaps the alternative would have meant a turning of that queering rage no longer against herself or Clare, but against the regulatory norms that force such a turn: against both the passionless promise of that bourgeois family and the bellowing of racism in its social and psychic reverberations, most especially, in the deathly rituals it engages." (Butler 185) Nella Larsen echoes this sentiment in Felise Freeland's warning to Bellew upon his apprehension of Clare's duplicity: "Careful. You're the only white man here." (Larsen 111)

  "And all the while, on the rushing ride out to her father's house, Irene Redfield was trying to understand the look on Clare's 
face as she had said good-bye.  Partly mocking, it had seemed, and partly menacing.  And something else for which she could find no 
   And late that night, even, long after the last guest had gone and the old house was quiet, she stood at her window frowning out   
into the dark rain and puzzling again over that look on Clare's incredibly beautiful face. She couldn't however, come to any 
conclusion about its meaning, try as she might.  It was unfathomable, utterly beyond any experience or comprehension of hers." 
(Larsen 45)
  "For into her mind had come a thought, strange and irrelevant, a suspicion, that had surprised and shocked her and driven her to   
her feet. It was that in spite of her determined selfishness the woman before her was yet capable of heights and depths of feeling 
that she, Irene Redfield, had never known.  Indeed, never cared to know." (Larsen 66)
  "Clare, it seemed, still retained her ability to secure the thing that she wanted in the face of any opposition, and in utter 
disregard of the convenience and desire of others. About here there was some quality, hard and persistent, with the strength and 
endurance of rock, that would not be beaten or ignored." (Larsen 73)
  "Security.  Was it just a word? If not, then was it only by the sacrifice of other things, happiness, love, or some wild ecstasy
that she had never known, that it could be obtained?
   Strange, that she couldn't now be sure that she had ever truly known love.  Not even for Brian." (Larsen 107)
Not even for herself....

1. Osborne, Peter and Lynne Segal. “Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler” Radical Philosophy 67 (Summer 1994): 32-39. London, UK. October 1993.

2. Smithson, Isaiah and Nancy Ruff. English Studies/Culture Studies: Institutionalizing Dissent. University of Illinois Press. Champaign, IL. 1994.

3. Petra Wilson, "On Passing", [[1]] myspace.com, 2006.