Discourse, Materiality, the Subject and Resistance by Dinesh Devaraj

The materiality of the body, as articulated by Judith Butler, is the sedimented effect of reiterative norms. As such, this account of materiality leads us to acknowledge that these sedimentary effects can in fact be unsettled. And this places resistance at the forefront of the debate, since material aspects of our bodies (sex, race, etc.) are malleable and not fixed – leaving open the possibility for this materiality to be rearticulated, recited and resignified. This paper will articulate Butler’s notion of materiality and its corresponding implications for resistance. From there, the criticism that Butler’s position leads to a linguistic parochialism will be articulated and addressed so that the significance of her rearticulation of materiality, in relation to resistance, is brought to light. Linguistic parochialism is the idea that Butler’s account of resistance is, to her detriment, limited to acts of linguistic insubordination, and so misses a wider scope for possible modes of resistance. In Butler’s defence, it will be argued that this criticism neglects her rethinking of materiality as being marked and formed by discursive practices. Within her framework, concrete and hands-on approaches to resistance are inclusive to the discursive field. But obviously, this issue must be approached after having acquired the appropriate understandings of Butler’s position. And so, Butler’s position is where we must begin.

In ordinary experience, it would seem that certain aspects of our bodies are indisputable. For example, the categories of sex (male and female) can be taken as a mere fact of our existence. But it is upon closer inspection that this factuality comes into question. Butler begins in Bodies That Matter by noting that sexual differences are usually understood as an issue of material differences. And upon this observation, she makes the claim that the material differences which determine sexual difference, are always in some way marked and formed by discursive practices (Butler, 1993). Discursive practices are understood here to be practices that implicate a realm of intelligibility (constituted by what matters or means something), in and through the exclusion of what is ‘unintelligible’ (what does not matter or is meaningless). Thus, discursive practices always have some normative force in that they produce, through exclusion, the realm of intelligibility. And because they exhibit a normative force, discursive practices can be understood to be norms (categories, terms, names, etc.). But how could it be that the body, in its very materiality, is marked and formed by discursive practices[1]? Butler invokes this possibility by normatively reformulating the notion of ‘materiality’ itself. Materiality is reformulated as being, not a pre-existent site or surface upon which discourse acts, but an ongoing process of materialization whose constitution lies in the reiteration of discursive practices. It must be noted that, for Butler, materialization is “precisely what ‘matters’ about that [materialized] body, its very intelligibility (Butler, 1993, p.32)”. Indeed, Butler’s reformulation conditions us to think of materiality as being the sedimentary effect of reiterative norms. This conditioning guides us towards an approach to materiality that neither denies its existence (a form of idealism) nor presumes it to be pre-discursively solid (a form of essentialism).

Butler’s reformulation of materiality has four implications that are directly relevant to her account of resistance, namely:

  • Norms are performative in the sense that their reiteration produces the phenomena that are named or implicated;
  • Subject formation arises in and through the performative aspect of norms;
  • The materiality of all phenomena (including the subject) is always incomplete because it is dependent upon a continuousreiteration of norms; and
  • The incompleteness of the subject enables the possibility for resistance.

If materiality is the sedimentary effect of reiterative norms, then it is obvious that norms bring about or materialize certain phenomena. This power of discourse to bring about phenomena which is named or implicated in and through the reiteration of norms is referred to as performativity[2]. And so, norms or discursive practices are performative. For example, sexual difference is performative because its reiteration, in and through discursive practices, marks and forms the very materiality of the sexual difference being named. Whence does this performative power arise? It arises in and through the performative norm’s ‘citationality’. The citationality of a norm is the effect of a norm’s being reiterated. The iteration of a norm is effectively a citing of its history and future which temporally precedes and exceeds the singular citation itself. And this ‘condensed historicity’ of the citation, is constitutive of the norm’s performative force in the sense that it invokes pre-established social traditions and institutional arrangements (Mills, 2010). Thus, the performativity of norms can be understood as a kind of productive power that exists insofar as the norm is cited. Butler maintains that it is in and through this productive power of performative norms that forms of subjectivity come to exist. And in order to understand this position, we must closely inspect the particular kinds of discursive practices whose performativity produces subjects – practices of interpellation[3].

Practices of interpellation[4] are acts of hailing or naming through which subject positions are brought into existence. It should be understood that certain discursive practices have interpellative functions, insofar as they bring about the materiality of a subject. To illustrate this idea, Butler utilizes the example of the medical interpellation that shifts an ‘it’ to a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ (Butler, 1993, p.7). Butler contends that the materiality of an infant subject is implicated within the positing of gender norms by various authorities. And so, in and through a process of subjection to the norm of gender, the infant subject is born. More specifically, the subject arises only through a process of subjection to performative practices of interpellation. Thus, in order to be a subject, ‘one’ must always have been already subjected to pre-established norms. If one is led to think that subjection presupposes a subject that is to be subjected, then one is failing to consider Butler’s ontology of the material. Taking into account that materiality is the sedimentary effect of reiterative norms, the materiality of a subject cannot occur prior to the subject’s being implicated in and through discursive practices. Rather, subjection is understood, not as a singular event which occurs to some subject, but as a process, which implicates the materiality of the subject in every moment of its instance. Butler refers to this pairing of subjection and subject formation as subjectivation[5].

So the materiality of phenomena – the phenomena of the subject in particular – subsists by virtue of the performativity of norms. But insofar as this performative power is dependent upon the norm’s constantly being cited, the materiality of phenomena is unstable. For, there is no guarantee that a norm will continue to be cited in a precise manner that will allow it to have the same effect in the future. This implies that the subject, implicated in a process of subjection, is never quite complete. And this incompleteness leaves open the possibility that seemingly fixed aspects of subjects, such as sex or race, are open to change. This allows for Butler’s ontology of the material to account for resistance by postulating that the subject may resist its own subjectivity by rearticulating, reciting or resignifying the conditions of its subjection. The conditions of possibility for resistance as resignification will now be made clear.

Recall that the performative power of norms is derived from their citationality. In order for a citation to have the same performative effect as that of its predecessors, it must meet specific contextual conditions. If these conditions are not met, then the performative effect of the citation is likely to be different. Butler notes that Nietzsche illustrates a similar point when she says “… the uses to which a given sign is originally put are “worlds apart” from the uses to which it then becomes available. (Butler, 1997)”. Linking this idea to resignification, Butler claims that “this temporal gap between usages produces the possibility of a reversal of signification, but also opens the way for an inauguration of signifying possibilities that exceed those to which the term has previously been bound. (Butler 1997)”. Butler’s theory of resistance thus relies on a manipulation of this temporal gap between the reiteration of norms (which results in altered contextual conditions) in order to rearticulate, recite or resignify the materiality of a given norm. Resignification can here be understood as the process through which conditions of subjection are altered so that the resulting forms of subjectivity are reconstituted. For example, the term ‘gay’ can be used injuriously in certain contexts, but a homosexual, being subjected to this injurious term, may then recast the term in a contextual situation which rearticulates, recites and resignifies the norm’s meaning. This rearticulation of the norm serves to alter the conditions of subjection, and thus resistance results in altered forms of subjectivity.Where conditions of subjection are oppressive, Butler’s notion of resistance provides a way of recasting those very conditions from within the capabilities of the oppressed subject, so that the subject may be reconstituted in an unoppressed fashion.

It is at this point that we are finally equipped with a sufficient understanding of Butler’s position on resistance, so that we may understand the criticism made by both Catherine Mills (2003) and Martha Nussbaum (1999) which claims that Butler’s position leads to a kind of linguistic parochialism. Firstly, what is linguistic parochialism, and how is it said to be the result of Butler’s position?

Linguistic parochialism is the idea that Butler’s account of resistance is, to her detriment, limited to acts of linguistic rearticulation, recitation and resignification, and so misses a wider scope of possible modes of resistance. Mills personally understands this linguistic parochialism to be the result of Butler’s conflating a “generalized logic of language [discourse] with that of power. (Mills 2003)” She claims that “[t]his has the effect of obscuring [Foucault’s] insights into the material operation[s] of power… (Mills, 2003)”. On the other hand, the charge of linguistic parochialism is furthered in Nussbaum’s saying that “These [discursive] gestures, it is believed, are themselves a form of political resistance; and so one need not engage with messy things such as legislatures and movements in order to act daringly. (Nussbaum, 1999)” The main point that is being made in both the criticism of Mills and Nussbaum is that Butler limits the notion of resistance to the resignification of discursive practices, and that this simply does not incorporate the range of practical issues, such as the material operations and specific technologies of power, which real life resistance might involve. It would seem that Mills and Nussbaum think that the resignification of discursive practices would be insufficient in resisting violent forms of oppression.

In Butler’s defence, I argue that the above criticism relies on a misguided reading of Butler’s account of resistance. The account of resistance as the resignification of discursive practices is an implication of Butler’s rethinking of the notion of materiality in terms of discourse. Material practices, such as the changing of legislation, the starting of movements or the process of analysing specific technologies of power, fall within the realm of discursivity, insofar as they are implicated as being intelligible means of resistance[6]. Mills and Nussbaum have demonstrated their neglect of this aspect of Butler’s position by reiterating the idea that there is a separation between discursive and material practices. It is precisely this separation between materiality and discourse that Butler takes great pains to dissolve by claiming that the forcible reiteration of discursive practices constitutes the very existence of materiality. Thus, Butler’s notion of resistance is not merely limited to acts of linguistic resignification (the recasting of the meaning of injurious terms, etc.) as Mills and Nussbaum suggest, but rather, it extends to the resignification of materialized practices which might include for example, subsisting oppressive legislatures. We are subjected to a ‘materialized’ reality, and as such we are subjects of this reality. Resistance, on Butler’s account, is merely the rearticulation, recitation and resignification of this materiality, that is, we are able to rearticulate the conditions of our subjection, the conditions of intelligibility. And it is through the rearticulation of the conditions of our subjection that constitutes our ability to escape forms of oppression. For example, let us consider the scenario where we desire to change oppressive legislature. Given a particular legislation, the speaking ‘I’ – the subject – is formed in and through being subjected to this legislation. Thus, I am the subject of this particular law. Any resistance to an oppressive law can only take place with the existence of an oppressed subject. So I, the oppressed subject, resist my oppression by resignifying the conditions of my subjection; I change the legislature to which I am subjected. And in doing so, I have effectively altered my form of subjectivity. I am no longer an oppressed subject. This simple example demonstrates the simplicity of Butler’s position in a relatable context. Mills and Nussbaum were led to disagree with Butler because they did not acknowledge the significance of her rethinking of materiality in terms of discursive practices.

So the materiality (of the body, of the law, of society, etc.) to which subjects are subjected, is able to be resisted in and through the resignification of the norms that implicate this materiality. And this account of resistance is heavily dependent upon Butler’s reformulation of materiality in terms of discourse. For Butler, what counts as ‘material’ is marked and formed by discursive practices. This position neither denies materiality, nor assumes a pre-discursive materiality. Rather, materiality is the sedimentary effect of reiterative discursive practices. The criticism that Butler’s position leads to a kind of linguistic parochialism, held by Mills and Nussbaum, neglects this reformulation of materiality in terms of discourse. In illustrating the significance of this reformulation, the criticism of linguistic parochialism has been addressed, and Butler’s understanding of resistance has now been brought to light.

Dinesh Devaraj is currently studying his honours year in philosophy, after completing a dual Bachelor of Arts and Economics earlier this year.


[1] From here on, the terms ‘discursive practices’ and ‘norms’ will be used interchangeably.

[2] The notion of performativity is a derivative of J. L. Austin’s speech act theory; in particular, it parallels the illocutionary act. The difference between performativity and illocution however lies in how each is conceived to acquire the power of producing the phenomena which it names. Illocution, as theorized by Austin, derives its power from the will or intention of a subject that exists prior to discourse. Performativity, as theorized by Butler, derives its power from the Derridian notion of citationality.

[3] It is unclear exactly how Butler distinguishes between performativity and interpellation. However, it can be said that interpellation is always performative, but not all performative norms are interpellative. In many cases, performativity and interpellation surely overlap; for in producing the body a subject is formed.

[4] This idea was developed initially by Louis Althusser as an ideological function.

[5] A concept originally developed by French philosopher Michael Foucault (in French: assujetissement).

[6] In particular, the analysis of specific technologies of power has become an intelligible course of action (in the name of resistance) insofar as Michael Foucault’s philosophical position has been reiterated through time.


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Butler, Judith P. 1993, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, Routledge, Great Britain.

Kirby, V. 2006, Judith Butler: Live Theory, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York & London.

Meijer, I. C. & Prins, B 1998, ‘How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler’, Signs, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 275 – 286.

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Mills, C 2000, ‘Efficacy and Vulnerability: Judith Butler on Reiteration and Resistance, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 15, No. 32, pp. 265 – 279.

Nussbaum, M. 1999, The Professor of Parody, viewed 28 October 2012,<http://perso.uclouvain.be/mylene.botbol/Recherche/GenreBioethique/Nussbaum_NRO.htm>

Schwartzman, L. H. 2002, ‘Hate Speech, Illocution and Social Context: A Critique of Judith Butler’, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 421 – 441.

Youdell, D. 2006, ‘Subjectivation and Performative Politics – Butler Thinking Althusser and Foucault: Intelligibility, Agency and the Raced-Nationed-Religioned Subjects of Education’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 511 – 528.

Photo by Aleksi Tappura.

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