The initial choice that each of us has to make in life is whether we think the world and ourselves already exist with some intelligible content to define what we are or whether there is nothing there but what we put there.
The orthodoxy these days is that there is nothing there but what we put there. Take, as an example, the views of Professor Judith Butler of the University of California. She believes that there is no natural basis to masculinity and femininity, that gender is merely a performance:
... gender is a performance ... Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction ...
This puts the issue neatly enough. Judith Butler is taking the view that there is nothing there to define us as men and women, only what we ourselves put there as a performance or act. She correctly identifies the opposing view, but rejects it.
The opposing view is that there is an objective good embedded within masculinity and femininity to which we aspire as individuals. It is understood, in this view, that masculinity and femininity have an "essence" - that there is a real, underlying, permanent quality of masculinity and femininity that we can recognise and which is then expressed in various ways by individuals and within cultures.
So we have two diametrically opposed positions. The first position, that gender is a mere construct, is usually justified in terms of human freedom and choice. It is argued that we should be free to choose our own identities and that we cannot do this if we are limited to an unchosen masculine or feminine identity. The aim then becomes to overthrow the traditional distinction between masculinity and femininity in order to make human identity fluid and multiple.
There are some powerful arguments against this liberal view. One of them is put by James Schall, who writes:
we are seemingly freer if there is nothing there in the first place, if we are solely responsible for our world and our own being. The trouble with being so absolutely free that nothing is presupposed, however, is that what is finally put there is also only ourselves ... on this premise, no reason can be found not to be something else tomorrow.
This suggests two things. First, if there is no objective good to which my identity is connected - if my identity is something I just put there myself according to my own will - then there is a loss of meaning and significance to who I am. Second, if I can change my identity at will, then my very sense of self - of who I am - will begin to dissolve. I will not have a stable identity.
It's not difficult to apply this criticism to the works of Judith Butler. According to Judith Butler, the freedom to self-define requires more than a denial of gender. She wants both gender and sexual orientation to be self-defined; to achieve this, she wants to deny even the distinction between male and female:
Butler argues that sex (male, female) is seen to cause gender (masculine, feminine) which is seen to cause desire (towards the other gender). This is seen as a kind of continuum. Butler's approach - inspired in part by Foucault - is basically to smash the supposed links between these, so that gender and desire are flexible, free-floating and not 'caused' by other stable factors.
In a Butlerian universe, we would be made free by denying the existence of men and women; of masculine and feminine; and of heterosexuality. But there's more:
Butler says: "There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender..." In other words, gender is a performance; it's what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are.
... This idea of identity as free-floating, as not connected to an 'essence', but instead a performance, is one of the key ideas in queer theory. Seen in this way, our identities, gendered and otherwise, do not express some authentic inner "core" self but are the dramatic effect (rather than the cause) of our performances.
David Halperin has said, 'Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.'
It's not (necessarily) just a view on sexuality, or gender. It also suggests that the confines of any identity can potentially be reinvented by its owner...
So there is no authentic inner core identity to who we are in a Butlerian universe. There is nothing, no essence, to which such an authentic self could refer.
Is there not a tremendous cost to such a freedom to self-define? Aren't we giving up a real, meaningful substance to our own being in order to gain such a freedom? What kind of a self are we left with to exercise our freedom to self-author?
(In my next post, I'll continue this theme by looking at the thoughts of a devotee of Judith Butler, Professor David Gauntlett.)