Gender as Social Temporality: Butler (and Marx)

in Historical Materialism
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This article addresses the notions of gender performativity and temporality in Butler’s early work on gender. The paper is articulated in four steps. First it gives an account of the role and nature of temporality in Butler’s theory of gender performativity. Second, it shows some similarities and connections between the role played by temporality in Butler’s theory of gender performativity and its role in Marx’s analysis of capital. Third, it raises some criticisms of Butler’s understanding of temporality and historicity, focusing in particular on the lack of historicisation of her own categories in both Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. This deficit is a consequence of the epistemological framework within which she is operating, in particular of her understanding of social practices and relations through the lens of linguistic concepts extrapolated from their theoretical context. The article concludes by referring to Floyd’s and Hennessy’s analyses of the formation of sexual identities as examples of the fruitful historicisation of gender performativity, which also sheds some light on the ‘the abstract character’ of the temporality of gender performativity.

Gender as Social Temporality: Butler (and Marx)

in Historical Materialism



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Butler 1998; Butler 2008; Fraser 1997.


Fraser 1998p. 140.


Hennessy 2000.


Althusser 2005.


See Hennessy 2000pp. 88–90.


Butler 2011pp. 70–1.


See for example Halberstam 2005. In Halberstam’s work queer temporality is understood as a specific ‘way of life’ an embodied alternative to the conventional temporality of people’s lives. Contrary to this conventional temporality determined and rhythmed by the cycle of highly regulated markers of experience such as birth marriage reproduction and inheritance and by a desire for long periods of stability queer time ‘is a term for those specific models of temporality that emerge within postmodernism once one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family longevity risk/safety and inheritance’ (Halberstam 2005 p. 6).


See for example Freeman 2007. As Elizabeth Freeman writes in her Introduction to an issue of glq dedicated to ‘Queer Temporalities’ temporality is a mode of implantation through which institutional forces appear like somatic facts: through the manipulation of time and therefore of the temporal experience ‘essences’ are not just qualified but actually produced. It is then the manipulation of time that makes body politics possible at all. Freeman deepens her critique of the idea of an objectivity and naturalness of the temporality of our lives through the articulation of a notion of ‘chrononormativity’ in Freeman 2010.


See for example Freccero 2006Love 2007 and Muñoz 2009. That queer theory should concern itself with futurity has now become a controversial issue. Within the debate on the ‘anti-social’ turn for example Lee Edelman has suggested that queer theorists should reject any futurity hence any normative politics and fully endorse that negativity to which queer people have anyway been bound: Edelman 2004.


McCallum and Tuhkanen (eds.) 2011p. 2.


Butler 2008p. 189.


Butler 2008p. 190.


Butler 2008p. 191.


Butler 2008p. 35.


Butler 2011pp. 59–60.


Butler 2008pp. 191–2.


Butler 2011p. xix.


Butler 2011p. xii.


Butler 2008: ‘If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time and not a seemingly seamless identity then the spatial metaphor of a “ground” will be displaced and revealed as a stylized configuration indeed a gendered corporealization of time.’


Butler 1997b.


Butler 2011pp. 191–2 n. 5.


Marx 1993p. 173.


See Tombazos 1994; Bensaïd 2002pp. 72–7; Tomba 2012.


Marx 1976pp. 163–77.


Marx 1993p. 272.


Bensaïd 1995pp. 29–30.


Marx 1976p. 279.


Marx 1978p. 185.


Marx 1978p. 184: ‘as a whole then the capital is simultaneously present and spatially coexistent in its various phases. But each part is constantly passing from one phase or functional form into another and thus functions in all of them in turn. The forms are therefore fluid forms and their simultaneity is mediated by their succession’.


Tombazos 1994pp. 11–12.


Floyd 2009p. 116.


Butler 2008p. 23.


Foucault 1990p. 114.


Butler 2011pp. 58–73.


See Derrida 1988pp. 1–23.


Austin 2003p. 6. See also the illuminating interpretation of Austin’s treatment of the performative in Crary 2007 pp. 49–95. While Crary agrees with Derrida against most commentators in reading Austin as attacking the idea of literal-sentence meaning in general she suggests contra Derrida that this opens the path not to overcoming the idea of objectivity but rather to elaborating a less narrow conception of objectivity.


Derrida 1988p. 14.


Derrida 1988p. 18.


Butler 2008p. xv. Here Butler clarifies that her original reading of performativity was strongly influenced by Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’.


Butler 1997ap. 51.


Butler 1997ap. 16.


Gutting 1990p. 340.


Foucault 1980p. 114.


Butler 2008p. 201. The same view is restated in somewhat different terms in Butler 2011: ‘Performativity describes this relation of being implicated in that which one opposes this turning of power against itself to produce alternative modalities of power to establish a kind of political contestation that is not a “pure” opposition a “transcendence” of contemporary relations of power but a difficult labor of forging a future from resources inevitably impure’ (Butler 2011 p. 184).


Marx 1975pp. 103–4.


Tombazos 1994p. 18.


Floyd 2009pp. 94–119.


Hennessy 2000pp. 97–103; Floyd 1998.


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