# PHILOSOPHY /// The Inscription of Gender in our Bodies: Norm Production in Foucault and Butler's works


We see them so many times every day that we barely pay attention to them anymore. However, those little symbols of gender differentiation constitute the operative symbol of a society that was built upon the strict separation of the male and female genders. Of course, we could start by the obvious, observing that the typical and ubiquitous bathrooms’ doors symbols shows, for the sake of immediate understanding, a woman wearing a dress and a man wearing pants. The very fact that anybody is able to understand the universality of this symbol is symptomatic of the problem here. But let us go further; the observation that women can wear pants and men dresses could be said to be the degree zero of the awareness of a gender issue. This degree zero is what lead us to fight for the equality of gender and the basic recognition of several sexualities, none of which should be stigmatized. The next degree of awareness of the problem is that the very fact of posing the latter with the terms of women and men as I just did contributes to its perpetuation. In other words, we should not content ourselves with a sort of elementary feminism and elementary counter-homophobia, even if those are still actively needed. The hideous manifestations of homophobia from the Christian right wing in France (who precisely use stereotypical symbols of a classic heterosexual family) against gay marriage and adoption prove it. The contentment of these struggles would contributes to a form of equality, that is true; however, this equality would be between the same two genders, or between four categorical genders (men, women, gay men, gay women). This would simply make the norm evolves and through it, reproduce phenomena of power from the normative bodies to the “pathological” bodies (I am currently re-reading Canguilhem’s Normal and Pathological, hence this terminology). In order not to fall in this “trap”, reading and re-reading Judith Butler‘s work is fundamental as her cautiousness for internal problems in the struggle seems to always equal her participation to the struggle for equality itself as I have been pointing out in a previous article about the processes of normalization.

In her fundamental book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 2006) first published in 1990, Judith Butler goes beyond from affirming that gender (understood culturally) and sex (understood anatomically) where two different things and one could be born with a sex, and grows with the opposite gender. This argument leads us back to the degree zero of awareness that I was referring to above.

Although the unproblematic unity of “women” if often invoked to construct a solidarity of identity, a split is introduced in the feminist subject by the distinction between sex and gender. Originally intended to dispute the biology-is-destiny formulation, the distinction between sex and gender serves the argument that whatever biological intractability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed: hence, gender is neither the causal result of sex nor a seemingly fixed as sex
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 2006

The kind of discourse is full of good intentions but reproduces the axiom according to which there would be a natural sexuality (which is either allowed by the norm or goes against it and is therefore oppressed by it). What Michel Foucault demonstrated however, is that the very idea of natural sexuality (just like the idea of human nature) is an illusion.

one should not think that desire is repressed, for the simple reason that the law is what constitutes both desire and the lack on which it is predicated. Where there is desire, the power relation is already present: an illusion, then, to denounce this relation for a repression exerted after the event; but vanity as well,
to go questing after a desire that is beyond the reach of power.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978

Whether “before” the law as a multiplicitous sexuality or “outside” the law as an unnatural transgression, those positionings are invariably “inside” a discourse which produces sexuality and then conceals that production through a configuring of a courageous and rebellious sexuality “outside” of the text itself.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 2006

The quote from Foucault is used by Pierre Macherey in his book De Canguilhem a Foucault: La Force des Normes (La Fabrique, 2009) to explain that sexuality is nothing else than the ensemble of historical and social experiences of sexuality (my translation). This leads him to the complex positive (positive has to be understood as productive here) functioning of the norm:

(my translation) If the norm is not external to its field of application, this is not only because it produces this same field, but also because it produces itself while producing this field.
Pierre Macherey, De Canguilhem a Foucault: La Force des Normes, Paris: La Fabrique, 2009

The apparent subversion to the norm is therefore also involved within the production of the latter. Simply, as Judith Butler points out, gender and sexuality does not concern the essences of bodies; rather it is effectuated through stylized repetitions of performative acts:

In what senses, then, is gender an act? As in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation. Although there are individual bodies that enact these significations by becoming stylized into gendered modes, this “action” is a public action. There are temporal and collective dimensions to these actions, and their public character is not inconsequential; indeed, the performance is effected with the strategic aim of maintaining gender within its binary frame – an aim that cannot be attributed to a subject, but, rather, must be understood to found and consolidate the subject.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 2006

The public aspect of these acts of gender(ification) is primordial as it envisions society as a global ensemble of politics of the bodies. That leads us to refine our terminology towards the emancipation from the notion of gender (of course, such an emancipation participate to the production of the norm as well): We should not talk in terms of gender nor sexes but rather in terms of bodies, and through them, we should insists on their uniqueness. I was describing above that natural sexuality or a human nature were illusions as it refers to a field of behaviors; however, bodies, in the material assemblages they form, can be said to be natural and necessarily captured and inscribed by the norm. In the case of gender, Judith Butler asks a fundamental question as far as this inscription is concerned:

What constitutes a subversive repetition within signifying practices of gender? I have argued […] that, for instance, within the sex/gender distinction, sex poses as “the real” and the “factic,” the material or corporeal ground upon which gender operates as an act of cultural inscription. And yet gender is not written on the body as the torturing instrument of writing in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” inscribes itself unintelligibly on the flesh of the accused. The question is not: what meaning does that inscription carry within it, but what cultural apparatus arranges this meeting between instrument and body, what interventions into this ritualistic repetition are possible?
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 2006

The graphic quality of the Kafkian metaphor (I realize sadly that I never dedicated a proper article to the Penal Colony) invoking a torturing machine that inscribes in the flesh of the victim the crime that (s)he is guilty of, despite its extremity, is useful to understand how much this gender inscription is effectuated on our bodies.

What has architecture to do with the production/perpetuation of gender? Once again a first degree critique would evaluate how much we are surrounded by a male conception of architecture (see the guest writer essay by Caroline Smith for example) or how the academic discourse on architecture is hold by male power (I take for example the recurrent use of a falsely bold introduction of “erotics” in this discourse). Nevertheless, we should here as well go beyond this critique and observes how all bodies have their flesh inscribed by the Kafkaien machine. Architecture is a strong enforcer of the norm as I have been observing before, its physicality pushes the bodies in all directions to force it to comply to the position that has been transcendentally thought (by the architect, in conformity with the norm) for it. Suppressing these bathrooms’ doors symbols from where we started, rethinking the bathrooms themselves as something else than instruments of gender separation, is therefore necessary but merely the beginning of what processes of creative subversions to gender can mean in architectural inventions. Of course, such processes will not be liberated from the norm and will contribute to produce it as well; however such an axiomatic shift from the consideration of two genders (or four as pointed out above) to the acknowledgement and recognition of the uniqueness of each body in its anatomy, its biology and its desires (but maybe they are all the same thing) would allow a radical harmony between these same bodies and their physical, social and political environment.