Sunday, October 2, 2011

Butler on Gender and Barth on Suicide.

Bizarre title, eh? They are connected. But be patient, dear reader, for it might take a while to explain said connection.

This afternoon I rented Judith Butler's preeminent Gender Trouble from the library. I read most of the first chapter by the time I walked from the library to my dorm room. It was truly engrossing. Butler's basic argument is that historically speaking, feminism has not questioned the content of the term "women" as the subject of emancipation in gender politics. Feminism has wrongfully assumed that there is universality to the term "women" that transcends the particularity of culture, class, race, etc. As such, feminism has unintentionally created "domains of exclusion" which produce "coercive and regulatory consequences" (6). Butler goes even further to say that not only does sex not determine one's gender, but even the category of sex itself is constructed by society. Thus, "it does not follow that the construction of 'men' will accrue exclusively to the bodies of males or that 'women' will interpret only female bodies. Further, even if the sexes appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution (which will become a question), there is no reason to assume that genders ought also to remain as two" (9). At this point, Butler can make the reader a bit uncomfortable as Butler begins to question axioms which are generally unquestioned by society as a whole namely the very existence of a binary sex system: "And what is 'sex' anyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such 'facts' for us? ... if the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called 'sex' is as culturally constructed as gender" (9). Some might be fearful that such a lack of universality in relation to a definition of "women" might prohibit political action. But Butler insists that "unity" traditionally conceived as solidarity might not be necessary for the political ends feminists hope to achieve.

I welcomed most of what Butler had to say in the first chapter. The conception of "womanhood" and "manhood" seems to depend entirely upon a metaphysical understanding of sex that I don't find helpful, compelling, nor even biblical. One doesn't have to think very hard to recognize that most of what constitutes "masculinity" and "femininity" both within society and the Church is almost entirely culturally constructed. And most individuals spend their lives either consciously or unconsciously trying to live up to these imposed standards. Sometimes they can become excessively oppressive and violent, for these standards expose one's own supposed shortcomings and particularities that are undesired by society at large.

Despite my relief at Butler's conclusions, I found implicit in Butler's words an understanding that the human subject is utterly sovereign and this allows one to determine their own sex and gender free from any external standard. Any external standard that does not take into consideration one's own particular culture and personal experience is violent and imperialistic. I wondered how I could possibly agree with these basic modern assumptions considering the fact that I confess to be a Christian and acknowledge the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord over my life. Butler makes conclusions about gender based upon Butler's own understanding of the autonomy of the human subject. As a Christian, I agree with a lot of Butler's conclusions because of what God has revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In light of the Incarnation, all humanity is defined by Jesus Christ as the second Adam. There is no distinction in Jesus Christ, but rather all are one.

A few hours later, I started reading Karl Barth for my ethics class. I was assigned to read a section entitled "The Protection of Life" where Barth eventually begins to speak about suicide. Barth, with very sensitive and careful prose, writes about the struggle involved when anyone considers taking their own life. Barth writes that one who is tempted to take one's own life does not need the law but rather the Gospel. And in the Gospel, one finds the truth that
"we must live. To will it is to will what we are permitted. It is to will in the freedom in which man is not sovereign or solitary, but always has God above him as the Creator, Giver and Lord of his life. Why do we want to be sovereign and solitary, so that in some way we come to see nothing but emptiness around us, and become desperate, and finally have to contemplate suicide? These things, i.e. sovereignty, solitariness, emptiness and despair, are necessary only if we must live, if life is not the freedom bestowed by God. They are necessary only if we are charged to help ourselves, if pressure is exerted from some quarter to take life into our own hands, to be our own masters, to make something significant of ourselves, to justify, sanctify, save and glorify ourselves, and therefore to have to recognise at some point and in some way that we cannot really succeed in doing this. But this supposition is false. For God is gracious to us. It thus follows that we may live, and that, since He is God, we are able to live by the fact that He is gracious. We can simply accept the fact that He is sovereign and not we" (CD, III.4, 80).
I will assume that to Butler, this entire passage is dripping with violence and imperialism. But must the Christian not grapple with the radical notion and claim that we offer to society when we witness to the truth that real freedom does not come from being autonomous and sovereign over one's own being, but rather recognizing the reality that God has a claim over all of humanity regardless of any distinction as Lord, Redeemer, Reconciler and Creator? In short, I wondered if Butler's entire project is possible from a radical christocentric methodology. Or must I admit to the fact that such a methodology is undesirable to most since Christianity will always be seen as inherently violent and oppressive by the non-Christian because it claims from first to last that the individual is not the captain of their own soul?


Anonymous said...

We can acknowledge that God is sovereign but does that necessarily mean we are not captains of our own soul? Don't we have free will?

Kait Dugan said...

That isn't necessarily the point of my post, but it depends upon your definition of "free will".

Anonymous said...

Great post Kait. Was getting a little nervous when you started the post based upon what you wrote, but you brought it around beautifully. I think many would find from a reading of Scripture that God's way can be inherently violent and oppressive. The story of Noah, that God brought judgment down upon the human race. The Israelites as they entered into Caanan. Even the Israelites as they left Egypt and the 10 plagues. I think much depends upon the perspective of the individual in relation to the sovereignty of God. Definately one of your better posts.

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