K. A. Cortes, W. P. Cockshott

Butler would have us believe that there is no universal category of woman. She seeks to empty out the word of any group membership, turning it into a matter of performances or self-perceptions that are held together by the social stereotypes imposed by gender. At the heart of this is the denial of the sexed body and its importance. In a material analysis, the sexed body is vital to the reproduction of life and, therefore, society. As Engels wrote in 1890, ‘According to the materialistic conception of history, the production and reproduction of real life constitutes in the last instance the determining factor of history. Neither Marx nor I ever maintained more.’ Engels, [] The ‘reproduction of real life’ demands that we recognize the universal categories of men and women, and evaluate how the individuals within these social groups are socialized to fulfill the roles that a given society demands of them.

Instead of the universal categories of men and women based upon the material nature of the sexed body, Butler ignores sex entirely in favor of gender identity. She argues that gender is an action rather than a system that serves to enforce a social order. This idea relies on Nietzsche’s suggestion that ‘there is no “being” behind doing’. Butler, [1990] Gender is a verb, not a noun, according to this view.

In the writings of Marx the foundations of identity and consciousness are social and are constrained by the material world. In The German Ideology, he wrote,’The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will.’

In the case of gender, these material limits Marx refers to are the sexed body and the social expectations based upon the sexed body. The man cannot produce materially in the same way a woman does in this case. The presuppositions are the social expectations placed upon women due to their reproductive potential. So, the act, by a man, of performing socially constructed femininity does nothing to change the universality of the category of woman, nor does it allow men to enter that category. So, yes, the woman is expected to “act like a woman,” whatever may constitute acting like a woman in a given society. She’s only expected to do so because of her biological sex, though. Her performance of femininity is not what makes her a woman; she has femininity forced upon her because she is a woman, and is sanctioned if she refuses to comply.

A counter argument is that women don’t stop being women simply because they cannot reproduce. This argument implies that female human beings are already being excluded if the concept of womanhood is based upon biology and the ability to reproduce. This objection ignores the socialization all females go through as soon as their sex is known. As Elizabeth Hungerford notes, this socialization begins before a child has her own consciousness and continues throughout her life. Hungerford, [] Whether an individual girl will have children or even be fertile is unimportant in her socialization; she will be indoctrinated into femininity with the expectation of providing free reproductive labor. Likewise, a woman who has advanced beyond menopause still provides this labor as wife, as mother of adult children, as grandmother. What’s more, women who never have children will still be expected to produce in the domestic sphere as wives. Butler’s idea of performance seems to stop some way short of housework.

Butler’s argument that gender reinforces heterosexuality, which underlies Gender Trouble, ignores these reasons for the system of gender norms. She tries to link it to everything from miscegenation taboos to sexuality, all the while ignoring its purpose. Butler, [1990] Gender norms are not arbitrary, but they are not imposed for any of the reasons she suggests. Because she misunderstands their purpose, her appeals to performance as a method of destroying them are bound to fail.

The system of gender norms was created and is reinforced because it provides real material benefit for the ruling class. This benefit is inextricably tied to the exploitation of female reproductive potential and the labor tied to that reproductive potential. It is not a coincidence that all of the features of femininity are tied to passivity and providing for others, with no concern for self. It’s also no coincidence that the features of masculinity are tied to activity and enforcing one’s will on others.

In order to control female reproductive potential, it becomes necessary for the woman to see her body as belonging to the men of the family or society, as a whole, rather than herself. Her reproductive potential is why she exists. The children she bears will become the property of the men. The “defiled” female body becomes a burden to the men. So, controlling her reproduction and sexuality becomes vital. Even today, this is why laws and cultural rules related to women focus on limiting contraceptive and abortion access, discouraging sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage and punishing women who raise children on their own. Beyond laws and cultural dictates, the most efficient way of controlling female reproductive potential is to convince her that it is her peculiar nature to be focused solely on creating children for men, and then providing comfort to both the men and the children.

Whether those children are proletarian or bourgeois, they benefit the bourgeoisie. The proletarian sons and daughters will become new workers and soldiers. The bourgeois sons and daughters will perpetuate the system, inheriting property and position. Gender ideology, with its focus on the passive feminine, is the method of convincing the woman to follow the existing social order. Because of this benefit, gender has no meaning outside its application to the sexed body. Men performing the stereotypes of femininity do not alleviate the problems related to the extraction of reproductive resources from women. Biological females will continue to be exploited on the basis of biology, and they will continue to be indoctrinated into the gender system in order to ease this extraction. As with all aspects of superstructure, gender’s purpose as an ideological component of class society is to make those who come out on the losing end easier to manage. The performance of the male who adopts the stereotypes of femininity is merely a distraction.

Even if we were to accept Butler’s arguments as valid, there would still be the issue of language. Her post-modern interest in playing with language, as if changes in terminology create changes in the real world, serves mostly to obscure her point. This isn’t to say that the masses are just not smart enough to grasp the language of the academic nor is it to adopt an anti-intellectual stance. However, Butler revels in the twisting of language to such a degree that even the highly educated have difficulty determining what she means. Take the following passage from Gender Trouble:

As a result, the exposure of this fictive production is conditioned by the deregulated play of attributes that resist assimilation into the ready made framework of primary nouns and subordinate adjectives. It is of course always possible to argue that dissonant adjectives work retroactively to redefine the substantive identities they are said to modify and, hence, to expand the substantive categories of gender to include possibilities that they previously excluded. But if these substances are nothing other than the coherences contingently created through the regulation of attributes, it would seem that the ontology of substances itself is not only an artificial effect, but essentially superfluous. Butler, [1990]

The point she seems to be making is that existing nouns can’t properly describe the range of possible identities, and that the adjectives we might use to modify those nouns come with their own baggage. She justifies this writing style by arguing that received grammar is not the best way to express radical ideas. Similar arguments were made in earlier decades by radical feminists, such as Mary Daly. While Daly’s attempts to examine ‘malespeak’ and convert it into language that addressed the experiences of women, Butler simply makes sentence structure so complex that following her train of thought becomes difficult. Daly used common language with tweaks that she explained to the reader in her works Gyn/Ecology: The Meta-Ethics of Radical Feminism and Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy. For example, Daly’s references to the ‘sado-state’ or ‘sado-spirituality are fairly simple concepts to grasp, even if she hadn’t devoted considerable time to explaining what those terms meant. Butler, on the other hand, strings together common nouns and adjectives in bloated sentences that fail to get to the point. The meaning of the passage above could have been made clear in a few simple sentences. Perhaps this is why so many readers are able to project whatever they want onto her works, including Gender Trouble.


1  Subjects

It is rather risky to start from the abstract reflection of social relations, in the speculations of philosophers, rather than the concrete reality of these relations. Butler claims a philosophical radicalism by countering her views to what she sees as a residual Cartesian notion of a pre-existing thinking subject, She denies that the subject pre-exists discourse. In substance her concept in Butler [1990] appears an unacknowledged borrowing from Althusser, [1971]. It was not until Butler, [1997] that she explicitly addresses Althusser’s work. Among the weaknesses of the Althusserian-Butlerian theory are:

  1. They mystify the concrete reality of residual feudal social relations by dressing these up in philosophical language.
  2. The focus on language, rather than armies, as a means of creating subjects, is historically naive.
  3. Even as a linguistic theory it is incoherent and superficial, based on no more than puns.
  4. There is no evidence that subjects, in Althusser & Butler’s sense even exist.


1.1  Gendered subjects, or Her Majesty’s?

Foucault points out that juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent. Juridical notions of power appear to regulate political life in purely negative terms—that is, through the limitation, prohibition, regulation, control, and even “protection” of individuals related to that political structure through the contingent and retractable operation of choice. But the subjects regulated by such structures are, by virtue of being subjected to them, formed, defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements of those structures. If this analysis is right, then the juridical formation of language and politics that represents women as “the subject” of feminism is itself a discursive formation and effect of a given version of representational politics.Butler, [1990,page 4]

This idea well predates Foucault. 50 years before Foucault Soviet Marxist theory of law had made this point (see Pashukanis [1989] ). But in Pashukanis the origin of the category subject is traced back to commodity exchange and the law of private property. That is to say according to Pashukanis both the political superstructure that enforces the category ‘subject of right’ and the properties of the category itself are deduced from something more basic – the reproduction of the units of economic production.1

It is a mistake to identify juridical subjects or legal persons with human individuals. In the start of this passage the author is explicitly taking the term subject in the sense of juridical subject. The legal category is quite distinct from human individuals. Obviously in Roman law, slaves were not legal persons but objects of property. In terms of modern law, firms are subjects, indeed the US Supreme Court holds that as such they have the right of free speech and that this free speech includes giving unlimited political donations. Feudal estates are also juridical personalities.

In rural Scotland local people will refer to ‘The Estate’ deciding to do this or that. A Dukedom is an estate and a subject of right, to which the current incumbent is just a placeholder. So yes the particular person who inherits the Dukedom, who might have been previously a person of little importance, several generations removed in the colonies becomes, on the death of the last Duke becomes the Duke. The Duke is indeed ‘defined, and reproduced in accordance with the requirements of those structures. ‘, but as the title holder he is just a mask for the real subject : the estate. Similarly in Britain and the Dominions The Crown is party to all criminal cases where it is The Crown, that prosecutes. The particular human individual who wears the crown is, literally, the bearer of the social relation. In republics, this real dehumanisation of the category becomes more explicit with prosecutions being carried out in the names of the Republic, the State, the People etc. In this sense the author is right about the general point that structures are prior, but too limiting in identifying juridical subjects with human individuals.

“the juridical formation of language and politics that represents women as “the subject” of feminism is itself a discursive formation and effect of a given version of representational politics” The author is in this passage being deliberately poetic and ambiguous, overloading her passage with several possible meanings at once. Does “the subject” of feminism in this context mean the topic that feminism is about? Does it use the metaphor of Lukacs where a political movement is described as a subject, ie all women organised in the feminist movement are a political subject. The author is also using the word ‘represent’ in two senses: as presents or shows, and representational politics in the sense of electing representatives: are women allowed to vote? Whether this type of poetic and ambiguous language is a good or a bad practice is open to question. Ambiguity is deplored in scientific writing, it may, however, be very handy to the rhetorician or sophist2.

the feminist subject turns out to be discursively constituted by the very political system that is supposed to facilitate its emancipation. This becomes politically problematic if that system can be shown to produce gendered subjects along a differential axis of domination or to produce subjects who are presumed to be masculine. In such cases, an uncritical appeal to such a system for the emancipation of “women” will be clearly self-defeating.Butler, [1990,page 4]

This is a deliberate adoption of the obscure writing style of mid 20th century French intellectual literature. As soon as you instantiate it with one of its possible concrete meanings it becomes nonsense. Take the first generation feminist campaigns for voting rights. The feminist subject, which by the authors previous sentence is women, were indeed up to 1944 constituted by the French Republic as non voters, the system of law there had indeed created the ‘voting subject’ as a subject that was presumed to be masculine. But what does it mean to make an uncritical appeal to such a system and why was that appeal self defeating?

The feminist movement of the day had to appeal to the French state – the system in question – in order to get the law changed, but the call to extend the franchise to women was not uncritical, it was obviously critical of the categorisation of women as non voters. And in the time scale of decades, this appeal to French Republic was not self defeating. The franchise was extended. Perhaps by ‘the system’, the author means not the Republic but the system of categories that created women as second class citizens?

This was a system of legal discourse; one which defined in statute certain discursive categories. This legal discourse defined women as a subordinate category, just as South African legal discourse defined black people as subordinate disenfranchised category. But any movement to reform civil rights has to appeal to the group that is currently disenfranchised – women in early 20th century France, blacks in mid 20th century South Africa. It is clear that blacks as a political category only made sense in the context of the ‘discursive practice’ of Apartheid law. Black was not a meaningful political category in Nigerian law at that time. But it was certainly not self defeating for the ANC to appeal to blacks as a category, nor was it self defeating for the suffragettes to appeal to women as a category. In both cases it was the only way to proceed.

The historical truth is the exact opposite of the two most plausible concrete interpretations of the author’s claim

The question of “the subject” is crucial for politics, and for feminist politics in particular, because juridical subjects are invariably produced through certain exclusionary practices that do not “show” once the juridical structure of politics has been established. In other words, the political construction of the subject proceeds with certain legitimating and exclusionary aims, and these political operations are effectively concealed and naturalized by a political analysis that takes juridical structures as their foundation.

The question of political subjects or citizens and their legal rights was indeed critical to feminist politics as it was to the Anti Apartheid movement. But it is simply not the case that these categories did not show or were invisible. The prohibition on blacks voting or women voting was explicit in statute and openly enforced. Similarly practices of excluding illegal immigrants from voting and other rights are not hidden. The prohibition on blacks as a category entering parks was openly proclaimed at park gates. It is certainly arguable that, on the contrary, the more discriminatory a system of political power is, the less this discrimination has to be hidden behind ideological niceties[Finley and Shaw, 1998]. Before the universal franchise, class differences were talked about openly and unashamedly, it is with the removal of legal discrimination’s that they become something that is glossed over with euphemism. They need no signs saying ‘no plebs here’ at the entrance of the Grosvenor.

We all have equal rights.

Some have money as well.

When discussing the feminist movement as a ‘subject’ there is no discussion in concrete terms of what she means by ‘representational politics’, in the USA nor on what sort of political contradictions of interest actually prevent the formation of a women’s party in US politics.

What relations of domination and exclusion are inadvertently sustained when representation becomes the sole focus of politics? The identity of the feminist subject ought not to be the foundation of feminist politics, if the formation of the subject takes place within a field of power regularly buried through the assertion of that foundation. Perhaps, paradoxically, “representation” will be shown to make sense for feminism only when the subject of “women” is nowhere presumed.

No answer given to the first question, the obvious one is that attempting just to increase the representation of women within the existing political structure would, by the dynamics of the the US system, lead to more representation by well off or wealthy women. The other sentences are meaningless.

Butler argues that one logical consequence of making the distinction between sex and gender is that in principle the two can become completely out of alignment.

If gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way.Taken to its logical limit, the sex/gender distinction suggests a radical discontinuity between sexed bodies and culturally constructed genders. Assuming for the moment the stability of binary sex, 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.

If we accept for a moment that gender and sex are both binary predicates, as a purely logical argument Butler is right. For example the category of people able to vote in France in 1930 was clearly something that was entirely something socially and legally constructed and it also overlapped, give or take a few resident aliens, criminals etc with the set of men in France and excluded all women in France. It was thus a culturally constructed category that could be said to attach meanings to sexed bodies there.

The equivalent category 20 years later no longer coincided with the man/woman distinction, but was more inclusive, excluding only the prisoners and aliens. So yes in principle a juridically constructed partition of the population that is initially aligned with sex can become completely disconnected. To some extent the state is free, given the right alignment in parliament, to play around arbitrarily with legal categories. It can decide that male to female transexuals can be legally treated as women if they wish to be.

Although such legal categorisations can reasonably be called ‘cultural meanings’, there are lots of other cultural meanings associated with sexed bodies. If a child is female there is the expectation that they will play with dolls, be quiet and studious at school, like fairy stories etc. If any person is a woman that ‘means’ that they are likely to earn less, have career breaks, be passed over for promotion, be more likely to work in public service than in the engineering industry, less likely to die of smoking related illness than a man etc. These ‘meanings’ are expectations both in the sense of subjective expectations – parents expect their girls to want Barbie for Xmas, girls will not expect to grow up to be engineers – and in the statistical sense that girls are more likely to play with dolls than boys are. The subjective expectations are shaped by the actual likelihoods, and in turn, tend to stabilise the likelihoods.

The expectations are probabilities. Some women will become engineers or plumbers, but more will become social workers. There are a whole set of these probabilities of outcomes and traits that are actually different between the sexes. The space of sex related traits is, in maths terms, multidimensional and thus if gender is the set of these meanings or probabilities gender itself is a high dimensional space3. But if gender is a multidimensional set of probabilities, it is not the set man,woman or male, female. In which case Butler’s argument about gender becoming disconnected from sex and the set of women ceasing to coincide with set of people who have female bodies makes no sense. Nor can one reconcile the fact that in practical research gender differences are measured on multiple orthogonal axes with the modern cant about gender being a spectrum. This wrong in several ways. First it is based on a misconception about what spectrums are. Those who claim it is a spectrum seem to think that a spectrum is in some way the opposite of saying that there are only two distinct genders: male and female.

If you have ever used a spectroscope, you will remember that what you see is a set of discrete coloured lines. Each chemical element will, when excited, emit a discrete set of characteristic colours – its emission spectrum. It is the discrete character of spectral lines that enables us to say what gases are present in the atmosphere of the Sun and other stars. So gender being a spectrum would imply that gender, like sex, had absolutely distinct ’emission’ lines: male and female. This is not what those who use the term want to imply. They think a spectrum implies continuity not discreteness, that in mathematical terms it maps onto the real number line, the continuum. But they are using the wrong metaphor for what they wish to express, and what they wish to express is itself wrong, since a multidimensional space can not be represented in a scalar continuum.

Butler’s argument only makes sense in terms of sex as a legal category, in terms of the set of people that the state calls women and,who for instance, it once allowed to retire at 60, or used to prohibit from serving on warships etc. The state can under the right political pressure legislate that this category of legal women includes biological males, or it can chose to make the legal category ‘woman’ void of practical significance by eliminating all laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.

For Irigaray, the female sex is not a “lack” or an “Other” that immanently and negatively defines the subject in its masculinity. On the contrary, the female sex eludes the very requirements of representation, for she is neither “Other” nor the “lack,” those categories remaining relative to the Sartrian subject, immanent to that phallogocentric scheme. Hence, for Irigaray, the feminine could never be the mark of a subject, as Beauvoir would suggest. Further, the feminine could not be theorized in terms of a determinate relation between the masculine and the feminine with- in any given discourse, for discourse is not a relevant notion here. Even in their variety, discourses constitute so many modalities of phallogocentric language.The female sex is thus also the subject that is not one.


For Beauvoir, the “subject” within the existential analytic of misogyny is always already masculine, conflated with the universal, differentiating itself from a feminine “Other” outside the universalizing norms of personhood, hopelessly “particular,” embodied, condemned to immanence. Although Beauvoir is often understood to be calling for the right of women, in effect, to become existential subjects and, hence, for inclusion within the terms of an abstract universality, her position also implies a fundamental critique of the very disembodi- ment of the abstract masculine epistemological subject. 19 That subject is abstract to the extent that it disavows its socially marked embodiment and, further, projects that disavowed and disparaged embodiment on to the feminine sphere, effectively renaming the body as female.This association of the body with the female works along magical relations of reciprocity whereby the female sex becomes restricted to its body, and the male body, fully disavowed, becomes, paradoxically, the incorporeal instrument of an ostensibly radical freedom

The discussion of subjects and whether the category subject is inherently masculinist seems to posses, in the authorities used by Butler, an odd bourgeois republican blindness. Bourgeois ideology, according to Marx, projects its categories as eternal necessary components of society. The authorities that the American, Butler, cites mainly lived in 20th century France. For them, as citizens of the archetypal bourgeois republic, ‘subject’ is just a philosophical or linguistic category. At most it is the idealized representation of the French male citizen voter.  But cross the channel from France or move North from the USA and you land in the dominions of Sa Majesté Elizabeth Deux, par la grâce de Dieu Reine du Royaume-Uni, du Canada et de ses autres royaumes et territoires, Chef du Commonwealth, Défenseur de la Foi.  Those born in these dominions, are, by birth, subjects: her subjects.

The labeling of us as subjects is a persisting effect of the old feudal social order. We are subjects because we are sub-iecta or cast beneath her in this social order. This status as subiecta is signified by the obligation to physically lower ourselves in her presence.

Even for those advancing beyond the lower ranks, acquiring ‘honour’ in the form of an identity as a Knight, Dame or Earl, the subject’s subordinate position is emphasized. They kneel before her and she places the blade of her sword on their shoulders, symbolizing that they live by her pleasure, that, though raised in status, she could if she wished cut their head off. In time of war, the fact that we live at the pleasure of the sovereign is made ruthlessly clear. We must, if so ordered, die for Queen and country.

De Beauvoir suggest that the subject is a male and the female is the other against which this subject defines itself. The subject is equated with freedom.

No, this is a philosopher’s delusion.

Subjects are not free, and the opposite of the subject is not woman, nor even objects like spoons, socks or shoes. No, the opposite of the subject is the Sovereign who defines all others as subjects. With monarchy, subjection to the sovereign is universal. When we transgress her laws, we are brought before Her Majesty’s judges, who sit beneath her seal, who can have us transported, now to Her Majesty’s Prisons, or once to her Australian colonies. When the Irish rebel, their insubordination is put down by Her Majesty’s armed forces -when Indian subjects rebelled they were blown from the mouths of cannons. When her African subjects rebelled they were put in concentration camps, tortured, starved and worked to death.

electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire. Bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, and hot eggs were thrust up men’s rectums and women’s vaginas. The screening teams whipped, shot, burned and mutilated Mau Mau suspects, ostensibly to gather intelligence for military operations and as court evidence Elkins, [2005,page 66]



Figure 1: The discursive constitution of the subject by ultima ratio de Victoria regina .


At a more basic level, one that touches all of her subjects every day, we exchange our labour for nothing more than paper tokens with images of her head on them. The universal feudal obligation on the subject to work for the sovereign was, with the issue of coinage, devolved to civil society so that the tokens of subjection might pass between subjects[Wray, 2004,Forstater, 2003], creating further hierarchies in her service. This is not the metaphorical ‘economy of signs’ of Irigaray, but a real economy of monetary signs growing out of the interstices of feudalism, growing at the pleasure and disposal of the monarch.

Figure 2. Her Majesty’s subjects.

The feudal/monarchical relation that makes people subjects is not gendered, since either men or women can be sovereigns and both are subjects of sovereigns. Yes, the laws of descent of the crown may be biased towards male heirs, there are relatively more kings than queens. But that statistical disparity is a result of laws of inheritance rather than laws of subordination and fealty4.

Monarchy was the overwhelming prevailing order in Europe until the French Republic was stably established as an exception in 1870. The language of European philosophy was formed in monarchy where all but the sovereign were legally subjects, so the term subject enters legal use and then philosophical dialogue as a synonym for persons. But being a subject is not a position of freedom, but, as the name implies, one of feudal subordination. To attribute it as a linguistic category or an effect of gender is an illusion, an a-historic and specifically bourgeois republican misinterpretation of the term. The entire legal and coercive structure of the European monarchies, real laws, currencies, armies, navies, prisons and courts were a practical demonstration of this.

It was not this mundane reality of subjection that Butler writes about when she says

The question of locating “agency” is usually associated with the viability of the “subject,” where the “subject” is understood to have some stable existence prior to the cultural field that it negotiates. Or, if the subject is culturally constructed, it is nevertheless vested with an agency, usually figured as the capacity for reflexive mediation, that remains intact regardless of its cultural embeddedness. On such a model, “culture” and “discourse” mire the subject, but do not constitute that subject. This move to qualify and enmire the preexisting subject has appeared necessary to establish a point of agency that is not fully determined by that culture and discourse. And yet, this kind of reasoning falsely presumes (a) agency can only be established through recourse to a prediscursive “I,” even if that “I” is found in the midst of a discursive convergence, and (b) that to be constituted by discourse is to be determined by discourse, where determination forecloses the possibility of agency.

The focus of the school French social theory, reflected second hand, in Butler is on the creation of subjects by language or as they call it discursive performance. The latter can indeed create subjects, but only on a small scale. Foreigners may become Elizabeth’s subjects and gain her gracious protection by an appropriate performative act – an oath of allegiance:

I, [name], swear by Almighty God that, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law.

But this is the petty change of subjectivity. For the mass production of subjects sovereigns resort to a different discourse, a different argument, the ultima ratio regis5. It was cannons that gave Victoria her 380 million subjects. Subjectivity is created by cannons and abolished by guillotines.


1.2  Linguistic subjects

There is a second, limited, sense in which language constitutes subjects. Butler writes about I being the speaking subject. Grammatically this is true, in “I hit the ball”, “I” is the subject of the sentence – nominative case. The sentence thus constitutes “I” as a grammatical subject. Whenever Judith Butler refers to to herself in a sentence using I she is the subject of the sentence. But this is trivial, since the subject of a sentence is not necessarily a person or even an animate object:

Shoemaker-Levy hit Jupiter in 1994
Titanic hit an iceberg

Conversely if Judith Butler refers to herself in a sentence using “me”, she becomes a grammatical object not a grammatical subject – in dative or accusative case. So just as language constitutes people as subjects, it constitutes ships and rocks as subjects, and also constitutes people as objects. The Althusser/Butler linguistic constitution of the subject actually comes down to no more than this insignificant pun on grammatical terminology. It pretends to give a material support to the idealist philosophical category `subject’, but on examination turns out to be just empty.

In places, even Butler herself recognizes that the subject she is trying to rescue is just the Cartesian mind or Christian soul.

The theory of embodiment informing Beauvoir’s analysis is clearly limited by the uncritical reproduction of the Cartesian distinc- tion between freedom and the body.Butler, [1990,page 17]

The subject/soul/spirit in this philosophical sense was used to explain human behaviour. How was it possible for human bodies to behave rationally. The hypothesis was that they contained an inner rational spirit, identified with breath[Lloyd, 2007], which somehow animated the body to give it personality. But if you dispense with this old idea, and follow modern biological science, you say that rational behaviour, speech etc are all produced by the body itself in response to a lifetime of sensory inputs. Butler’s theory amounts to saying that these sensory inputs, in particular sound in the form of words makes, or as she would say, constitutes a soul within the body: presumably as some configuration of neural connections.

Another discipline, computer science uses the concept of virtual machines or emulators[Goldberg, 1974]. It is possible to use a programming language to make an Intel computer behave like a Motorola one. This program is said to constitute a virtual Motorola processor. A generous interpretation of Butler, might be that she is suggesting that subjects are virtual entities in this sense: machines programmed in natural language. But her hypothesis is pure speculation. She presents no evidence that these subjects or souls actually exist. Nor does she give any mechanism by which language could, even in principle, make these virtual subjects operate6.

Butler places herself explicitly on the terrain of explaining human behaviours. For what, other than behaviors, are her `performative acts’?

The study of, and causal investigation of, human behaviours is what psychology is all about. If, however, you look in the top rated psychology journals, you wont find them explaining behaviour in terms of discursively constituted subjects. The concept is just not used. Insofar as they do talk of subjects it is in the sense of experimental subjects, people who are either subjected to some form of treatment or act as controls.

In summary, for all Butler’s pretensions to radicalism, she fails to actually problematise the term `subject’.


1.3  Identity and bodies

Discussing what identity means she says: “the “coherence” and “continuity” of “the person” are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility.”

Well identity does involve socially instituted and maintained norms, and the continuity of a person does not depend on anything logical or analytic, but it misses the key point. The continuity and coherence of a personal identity, say Judith Butler, is dependent on the name continuing to refer to the same physical body. This may seem banal but contemporary society has a whole set of regulatory procedures to ensure that the name and body match up. A credit card is the most common evidence of identity used today, but, as a physical token it can be stolen. It is secured by something internal to the person’s body – a PIN stored in their brain. If the PIN is written down it is compromised. A similar principle exists with passwords, they act to identify you to the extent that they become part of your brain.

Credit card systems and computer login systems are coercive ‘socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility’. They are social power. They give you, what Smith called, the power to command the labour of others. Think of the power that would come from access to Trump’s bank account login. As a result, they are the targets of ‘identity theft’, where theft of the tokens of your identity allows, from the standpoint of these social regulatory systems, a thief passes as equivalent to you.

In what sense is a thief who has stolen your credit card and a PIN you have written down not you?

From the standpoint of the bank teller or cash machine they are you. If someone steals your passport, and changes the photograph, then from the standpoint of the border police, they are you. The socially instituted norms of intelligibility, will, in this case treat the fake and the real person as identical.

But we all have no hesitation in rejecting this is false pretense. Why?

Because it is not the same body. True identity resides in bodily continuity not from the appropriation of the tokens external of identity. Technologies for bio-metric identification, whether based on iris patterns or fingerprints aim to make the token of identity something that is inseparably and continuously linked to your body.

This has an obvious parallel to the objection by the feminist community to transsexual men declaring themselves as women. They adopt signs of identity in the form of dress, makeup and engage in explicit declaration just as the credit card fraudster adopts signs and makes declarations of a stolen identity. But all this is pretense in both cases, since true identity rests in bodily continuity.


[Althusser 1971]
Louis Althusser. Ideology and Ideological State Apparattuses. In Lenin and philosophy. New Left Books, 1971.

[Butler 1990]
Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.

[Butler 1997]
Judith Butler. The psychic life of power: Theories in subjection. Stanford University Press, 1997.

[Chomsky 1956]
N. Chomsky. Three models for the description of language. IRE Trans. on Information Theory, 2(3): 113-124, 1956.

[Cockshott et al. 2012]
Paul Cockshott, Lewis M Mackenzie, and Gregory Michaelson. Computation and its Limits. Oxford University Press, 2012.

[Costa Jr et al. 2001]
Paul Costa Jr, Antonio Terracciano, and Robert R McCrae. Gender differences in personality traits across cultures: robust and surprising findings. Journai of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (2): 322-331, 2001.

[Elkins 2005]
Caroline Elkins. Britain’s gulag: the brutal end of empire in Kenya. Random House, 2005.

[Engels ]
Friedrich Engels. Engels to j. bloch in koenigsberg. URL https://www.marxists.org/archive/ marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm.

[Finley and Shaw 1998]
Moses I Finley and Brent D Shaw. Ancient slavery and modern ideology. Markus Wiener Publishers, 1998.

[Forstater 2003]
M. Forstater. Taxation: A Secret of Colonial Capitalist (so-called) Primitive Accumulation. Technical Report 25, Center for Full Employment and Price Stability, 2003.

[Goldberg 1974]
Robert P Goldberg. Survey of virtual machine research. Computer, 7 (6): 34-45, 1974.

[Hopcroft and Ullman 1979]
J.E. Hopcroft and J.D. Ullman. Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages. Addison Wesley, 1979.

[Hungerford ]
Elizabeth Hungerford. Socialization matters: Why ‘identity libertarianism’ is failed politics. URL https://liberationcollective.wordpress.com/ 2013/05/20/ socialization-matters-why- identity-libertarianism-is-failed-politics/.

[Iverson 2007]
K. Iverson. Notation as a tool of thought. In ACM Turing award lectures, page 1979. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 2007. ISBN 0-201-0779X-X. doi: 10.1145/1283920.1283935.

[Lloyd 2007]
Geoffrey Lloyd. Pneuma between body and soul. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13: S135-S146, 2007. ISSN 1467-9655. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9655.2007.00409.x. URL http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9655.2007.00409.x.

[Pashukanis 1989]
E. B. Pashukanis. Law and Marxism: A General Theory Towards a Critique of the Fundamenta Juridical Concepts. Pluto Publishing, Worcester, 1989.

[Shackel 2005]
Nicholas Shackel. The vacuity of postmodernist methodology. Metaphilosophy, 36 (3): 295-320, 2005.

[Turing 1937]
A. Turing. On Computable Numbers, With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, 42: 230-65, 1937.

[Turing 1950]
A. Turing. Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind, (49): 433-460, 1950.

[Wray 2004]
Randall Wray. The Credit Money and State Money Approaches. In Credit and State Theories of Money: the contributions of A. Mitchell Innes, pages 79-98. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 2004.


1It is arguable that the English translation of Pashukanis should have used the ‘legal personality’ rather than ‘subject of right’, since the former is the more normal English usage for the concept that Pashukanis deploys. The same point applies to translations of Althusser, his use of the French legal term ‘subject de droit’ is translated as ‘subject of law’ in Althusser, [1971], but again the normal English for that legal category is ‘legal personality’.

2A helpful catalogue of rhetorical tricks used by modern sophists is given in Shackel, [2005].

3We will see later in section that the scientific research literature on gender does in fact treat gender as a vector of differences in a higher dimensional space of traits. An example would be the NEO-PI-R multidimensional personality measurement system used in the work of Costa Jr et al. [2001] on cross cultural gender differences discussed in section .

4The contemporary laws of succession for the British Commonwealth do not discriminate between male and female offspring of the sovereign.

5The king’s final argument. The motto on Spanish royal cannon.

6This is not to say that an argument could not be made. For example here is a possible argument. First assume that natural languages are Chomsky class 0 languages[Chomsky, 1956], then we know that recognizer for such languages must be Turing Machine(TM) equivalent[Hopcroft and Ullman, 1979]. This would imply that since humans can generate and parse natural languages, then a part of their cognitive mechanism must be TM equivalent. It is a feature of TM’s that they can emulate all other symbol transformation mechanisms[Turing, 1937]. Hence in principle the human cognitive process should be able to execute virtual machines.

It is however, by no means sure that humans do really have an ability to parse unbounded utterances or productions in Class 0 languages. There are strong arguments[Turing, 1950,Iverson, 2007,Cockshott et al., 2012] to suggest that such computational capacity is only attained by people who have access to auxiliary external storage in the form of paper and pencil etc.

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