afternoon dust

dance & aesthetics, mostly

Judith Butler goes to the ballet

Judith Butler is a name that crops up a lot in recent writing on performance, so I thought I’d better get myself acquainted with her work. Her first book Gender Trouble was published in 1989, and succeeded in stirring up a storm of controversy, establishing the terms of debate for much of her later writing. In the book, Butler contests the widespread notion that gender is a cultural expression of a pre-existing, biologically-determined sex. Instead, she argues that both gender and sex are produced by a cultural discourse that, in the very act of producing them, sets limits on what the two terms can mean. Butler understands ‘discourse’ as a set of acts that come to establish cultural norms and values through incessant repetition, to the point where they take on the illusion of being ‘natural’ (that is, originating in some biological or psychological essence that precedes culture). The so-called ‘male-female binary’ has, for Butler, little or no basis in metaphysical or biological substance, but has taken on the appearance of having such through the repetition of acts that establish and then confirm and sustain it.

A useful example of what Butler means by discourse can be found in recent comments made by the ballet critic Alistair Macauley. His suggestion in a review[1] of New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker that dancer Jenifer Ringer “looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many”, and that another, Jared Angle, “seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm”, drew widespread media attention and the ire of many observers. Macauley refused to apologise, instead claiming, in an article[2] defending his comments, that “the body in ballet becomes a subject of the keenest observation and the most intense discussion”. The “ballet” that he refers to here without an article is obviously not any particular ballet, such as The Nutcracker, nor even merely a repertoire of dances in a certain style, but a whole system of acts, gestures, discussions, opinions and occasions that has accumulated over time to form the impression of a coherent whole – what Butler would describe as a discourse. Macauley’s article sets out some of the key terms of this discourse, tracing its production through the repetition of those terms in the acts of historical figures, and also highlights how it sets strict limits and restrictions and imposes rules on certain variables, such as the appropriateness of different bodies for different dance styles. The resulting effect is that when Macauley sees Ringer perform, he doesn’t see her ‘real’ body, but her body as produced and presented to him by the discourse in which they are both immersed, leading him to perceive her as overweight even when the majority of people (whose perceptions are conditioned by other discourses) would see her otherwise. Macauley judges the mediated appearance of Ringer’s body within the terms permitted and defined by a certain version of ballet discourse, which is why Ringer herself has stated that he has no need to apologise: she too submits to this discourse[3].

However, Butler would be quick to challenge Macauley’s appeal to “widely accepted ideals of beauty” as the founding origin (and therefore ethical justification) of this version of ballet discourse. For Butler, the reification of these notions of ideal beauty (their transformation from abstract constructs to concrete ‘things’ that precede discourse and have the power to produce and underwrite it) is an illusion: it is discourse itself that produces the very “ideals of beauty” that are then paraded as its root cause and justification. Macauley claims to be able to recognise specific instances or performances of beauty by comparing them to a pre-existing, perfect Beauty, but in fact he only knows this ideal through the perception of previous specific instances, the frequent and restrictive repetition of which has led him to assume the existence of a prior metaphysical cause. If we were to take Butler’s arguments in Gender Trouble and apply them to the aesthetic category of beauty, we might argue against Macauley’s view not by denying the existence of beauty, but by suggesting that beauty is produced in the act of its performance: beauty exists in the act of being beautiful, and nowhere else. Repetition is the process by which these acts become culturally intelligible through their differences and similarities to prior acts. This allows us to imagine ways in which Macauley’s version of ballet discourse can be challenged and contested. Indeed, one way of understanding the various activities brought together under the label of ‘contemporary dance’ is as an alternative discourse, one that allows for the performance of a more diverse range of beauty ideals, and that maintains an ambiguous relationship of (often simultaneous) rejection, admiration, longing, frustration, derision and affirmation to the dominant ballet discourse. However, perhaps it is also possible to expand the possibilities for what the body can mean from within the terms of ballet discourse itself – Raimund Hoghe and Kristen McNally are two choreographers whose work shows, in very different ways, what this might look like in practice.

Butler’s theory is not without its problems: perhaps the biggest worry for me is whether, in refuting any kind of original biological or metaphysical essence or impulse that precedes discourse, she manages to avoid reifying discourse itself and attributing more power to it than it need have. I’m looking forward to reading her later work in which she clarifies and builds upon these ideas, as it seems a really useful way to rethink not only gender, but just about anything that could possibly come under the influence of what we call culture – which is, come to think of it, just about anything.

[1] (last accessed 2011-01-01)
[2] (last accessed 2011-01-01)
[3] (last accessed 2011-01-01)

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