Lecture notes: What is a (Queer) Author? What is a (Queer) Text? (Barthes, Butler)

 Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s Lecture Notes, January 12, 2012

“What is a (Queer) Author? What is a (Queer) Text?” session

Texts discussed:

  • Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.”  In Performing Feminisms, ed. Sue-Ellen Case.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.  270-282.
  • Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”


What happens when we try to apply Barthes’ and Butler’s ideas and critiques to the idea of queer authors: the death of the queer author, the performance of the queer author (or text)? What are some additional questions or considerations, not brought up by Butler or Bathes, when the subject is queer authors and texts?

What about the idea of performativity that comes out of Butler’s text?  Does the queer author “perform” his or her queerness somehow?  How?  And what is the relationship between a queer reader and a queer author or a queer text?

Roland Barthes (1915-1980), “The Death of the Author”               Roland-Barthes-Paris-1979-002


Structuralist/poststructuralist (helped found the field that is now called semiotics)

“The Death of the Author”—some background: Influential essay from 1968, written right before Barthes’ turn to poststructuralism (where theories of intertextuality, the interplay of culture and texts, and the play of language, rather than the stricter structuralist view of language as a game of chess with strict rules that can be fully explored and understood, would play more of a role.

Structuralism: focuses on production of meaning through certain structures in texts (identifies the underlying structures of meaning).  Key principles: interconnections of a sign with other signs, signs are understandable both diachronically and synchronically (i.e. historically through time, and contemporaneous with other signs).  Barthes builds on the intentional fallacy idea to develop his concept of the death of the author. Intentional fallacy, formalist critics Wimsatt and Beardsley, 1946:  They criticize the mistaken belief that what the author intended is the final, real meaning of his work and that we as readers can or should discover what that is (focusing on author’s intention).  W/B argue that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a literary work.”  All we have is the text itself; it isn’t criticism’s business to inquire into author’s intentions.


  1. Idea that writing is the deconstruction of every voice (end of first paragraph)—do you buy that?  What could that mean?
  2. Describe elements of the author as B describes him: a modern phenomenon (not a shaman) i.e. a constructed concept and a historically changeable one, individualistic view.
  3. Page 2 describes some exceptions or rather loosening of the idea of author phenomenon in literature.  How does today’s internet culture figure in here as well?  See end of Foucault’s essay, too (read it in light of the recent www developments, social networks, youtube etc.).
  4. Explain the idea of the modern author versus the modern scriptor, collect passages.  Subjectivity as essence vs. agency (not personhood) as construction.  How does this compare to Butler’s notion of performativity? Do the two views of “authors” and “readers” (of texts, of genders) oppose each other, resemble each other, or overlap—how?
    1. Barthes: text as expression of author, final signified, closed-off writing, “decipher” text and you’re done, theological Author-God.
    2. Text as construction (limited dictionary and actions) of the scriptor, “disentangle” text, anti-theological activity refusing to fix meaning
    3. Famous last sentence, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the Author”—explain, discuss,  Last sentence is a bit of a cop-out—a salutary finish, rhetorically effective, but also not explained.  Does Barthes indicate what “the reader” is, or can we infer it somehow?  Is the death of the reader next?


Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”                   Judith Butler


Judith Butler (who teaches at UC Berkeley) has been one of the most conspicuous theorists of gender for decades.  One work especially catapulted her to academic fame: Gender Trouble [1990], and the follow-up study Bodies That Matter [1993], also Undoing Gender [2007] (all still essential reading for the study of sexuality and gender today).  Besides having helping to develop the field of queer theory, Butler belongs to the school of thought called feminist constructivism, which believes that gender is MOSTLY culturally constituted, rather than ONLY biologically determined.

“doing one’s gender”                                                           vs.               “being one’s gender”

Butler starts with a quote from Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born but rather becomes a woman.”

Central question: if gender is culturally and gradually individually developed, then, how can we think about this happening in an actual person’s life?

Butler suggests a couple of answers:

  • We only perceive a person as having a certain gender because that person him-herself acts, looks, behaves in certain ways which are identified as “masculine” or “feminine,” or a mixture of these.  This is not completely the individual’s voluntary, conscious choice though:  “doing one’s gender” is both determined by

— individual will, choice, preference (e.g. style of clothes, hair, perhaps certain conscious mannerisms), but even this is “rarely original” (p. 277);

— social norms, conventions, education, upbringing etc.—the social and cultural environment

  • If gender is not a prior given, it must be developed and performed over time and be manifest in certain acts (looks, behavior) in order to be recognizable by others as belonging to someone’s personality: hence Butler’s idea of gender as something that is first “rehearsed” like a role (i.e. we rehearse our gender as kids), and then later repeated again and again.

Some quotes from Butler that express these ideas well:

Gender as

  • “an identity tenuously constituted in time” (271)
  • “a stylized repetition of acts” (271)
  • relying most visibly and obviously on the stylization of the body (ideas about the body are subject to historical interpretation which can change).
  •  “To guarantee the reproduction of a given culture, various requirements, well-established in the anthropological literature of kinship, have instated sexual reproduction within the confines of a heterosexuality-based system of marriage which requires the reproduction of human beings in certain gendered modes which, in effect, guarantee the eventual reproduction of that kinship system.  As [Michel] Foucault and others have pointed out, the association of a natural sex with a discrete gender and with an ostensibly natural ‘attraction’ to the opposing sex/gender is an unnatural conjunction of cultural constructs in the service of reproductive interests.  […]  My point is simply that one way in which this system of compulsory heterosexuality is reproduced and concealed is through the cultivation of bodies into discrete sexes with ‘natural’ appearances and ‘natural’ heterosexual dispositions.”  (275)

Butler calls this compulsory  system one of “binary genders” organized by “the heterosexual contract” in society (ibid.).

Greek hetero = “the other,” Greek homo = the same


Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  New York: Routledge, 1990:

If there is something right in Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, it follows that woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end.  As an ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and resignification.  Even when gender seems to congeal into the most reified forms, the “congealing” is itself an insistent and insidious practice, sustained and regulated by various social means. […]  Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.  (33)

Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter.  New York: Routledge, 1993: 

Materiality of the body versus the performativity of gender (1)

But how, then, does the notion of gender performativity relate to this concept of materialization [of sex]?  In the first instance, performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate “act.” But, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.  What will, I hope, become clear in what follows is that the regulatory norms of “sex” work in a performative fashion to constitute the materiality of bodies and, more specifically, to materialize the body’s sex, to materialize sexual difference in the service of the consolidation of the heterosexual imperative. (2)

If gender is the social construction of sex, and if there is no access to this “sex” except by means of its construction, then it appears not only that sex is absorbed by gender, but that “sex” becomes something like a fiction, perhaps a fantasy, retroactively installed at a prelinguistic site to which there is no direct access.  (5)

[What we habitually call sex is produced by] a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter.   (9)

[The regulation and normalization of gender and sex in our society] contribute to that field of discourse and power that orchestrates, delimits, and sustains that which qualifies as “the human.”  We see this most clearly in the example of those abjected beings who do not appear properly gendered; it is their very humanness that comes into question.  Indeed, the construction of gender operates through exclusionary means, such that the human is not only produced over and against the inhuman, but through a set of foreclosures, radical erasures, that are, strictly speaking, refused the possibility of cultural articulation.  (8)


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