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The biological subject: reworking Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity through Henri Bergson’s matter and memory

Hallihan, Mark (2015) The biological subject: reworking Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity through Henri Bergson’s matter and memory. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis expands the currently available approaches to theorising the relation between subjectivity and the body – by developing a notion of an embodied subject. This is done by exploring the implications which Henri Bergson’s process philosophy has for understanding Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. I undertake an analysis of Butler’s account of the gendered subject, demonstrating its value for thinking the politics of sexual difference but emphasising its methodological short comings. Specifically, I criticise her reduction of the body to a signifying effect, her exclusion of a notion of self-reflexivity, and the way she explains the psychic investment in gender through a principle of melancholia. Taken together, I argue that these theoretical perspectives become problematic because they radically limit an understanding of how and why hegemonic subjects repeat normative signifying practices. In turn, this limitation distorts Butler’s understanding of how subversive repetitions can effectively de-naturalise gender norms. Following this critique, I use Bergson’s temporalised understanding of the relation between consciousness and language to theorise an account of the gendered self which conforms to Butler’s ideas concerning regulated subject positions, but provides the possibility of attaining reflexive distance from the norms of gender intelligibility. I then develop Bergson’s sensory-motor conception of the body, and its relation to consciousness and memory, in order to re-evaluate the lived dynamics of repetition, gender investment, and identification. Through Bergson, I will demonstrate how historically sedimented gender practices are reproduced by forming the motor habits of individual bodies. This allows me to explain the circulation of gender norms in terms of bodily processes and tension rather than signifying effects and, I argue, grounds the basis of gender investment in the familiarity which habits provide for action. I then use Bergson’s principles that consciousness expands when action is indeterminate, and that memory forms general ideas in response to the present moment of action, to explore how variable processes of gender identification develop when habits are subverted. Through these perspectives I re-describe Butler’s notion of performativity as a lived, embodied process in which gender investment and identification are contingent upon an individual subject’s reflexive responses to the immediate social conditions of action. In order to clarify the nature of these responses I then call upon Yaak Panksepp’s neurological theory of emotion to characterise several prominent tendencies and, ultimately, argue that the effectiveness of subversive repetition depends upon producing the right emotional response. This, I suggest, provides a more diverse explanation of the naturalisation and potential transformation of signifying practices than is available in Butler’s own theoretical framework.

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