To return to matter requires that we return to matter as a sign which in its redoublings and contradictions enacts an inchoate drama of sexual difference.[1]

-Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter

Readings of Butler that assume trash talking instead of basic agreement remind me that secondary readings of feminist texts remain encoded with expectations of a catfight between “cultural” and “poststructuralist” feminists well into the current century.

Such readings of the Chora chapter of Bodies that Matter flatten the stylistic ambiguities available in the rhetorical redoubling of mimesis--[Butler[Irigaray[Plato]]]--a triple fold inducing vertigo for all its worth.

With what seems to be largely an appreciative reading, requiring I will admit something of an Escheresque squint, Judith Butler engages Irigaray as an entry into the Platonic chora in order to untangle the triple knot of matter, sex, and difference.

Butler considers Irigaray’s strategy of mimesis for its strengths and weaknesses. As to weaknesses, Butler acknowledges Irigaray’s tendency to “mime the grandiosity of the philosophical errors that she underscores,” but then follows suit, intentionally risking an overreading that may “replicate a speculative excess” present in the Platonic text itself.[2]

As to strengths, Butler performs a first person interpretation of the mimetic strategy and response:

Irigaray’s response to this exclusion of the feminine from the economy of representation is effectively to say, Fine I don’t want to be in your economy anyway, and I’ll show you what this unintelligible receptacle can do to your system. I will not be a poor copy in your system, but I will resemble you nevertheless by miming the textual passages through which you construct your system and showing that what cannot enter it is already inside it (as its necessary outside), and I will mime and repeat the gestures of your operation until this emergence of the outside within the system calls into question its systematic closure and its pretension to be self-grounding.[3]

Butler summarizes the Irigarayan critique of Plato as such:

“The problem is not that the feminine is made to stand for matter or for universality; rather the feminine is cast outside the form/matter and universal/particular binarisms. She will be neither the one nor the other, but the permanent and unchangeable condition of both—what can be construed as a nonthematizable materiality.”[4]

If Butler were disagreeing with Irigaray, one would expect an argument contrasting the autogenetic self-reproduction of the phallus to the participation of maternity via heterosexual coupling, but this is not it. Butler's critique of heterosex as autogenetic is essentially Irigaray's logic--behind the plea for sexual difference. Thus they agree on a critique of Plato's chora whereby a phallic form of reproduction must penetrate but does not precisely impregnate, and instead reproduces itself as only the same without the contribution of female reproductive agency. This is what Butler and Irigaray read as the autogenesis of compulsory heterosex. Plato’s inscription is doubly violent, first as penetration then as erasure; ours is treble when we force a fight.

I wish to amend that heterosex is not an exclusive generator of phallologics: autogenesis is certainly also a fantasy of (typically) male homo-generation, perhaps evidence of the homo-desires at the heart of patrilineage, whether homo- or heterosexually accomplished. What's more, if Irigaray is permitted, autogenesis operates best in heterosex when sexual difference is disavowed.

Butler underestimates, in my view, the apophatic potential that Irigaray is calling forth from the outside of linguistic representation--the exilic potentialities of phallic erasure--when Butler asks,

“How is this assignation of a feminine ‘outside’ possible within language? And is it not the case that there is within any discourse and thus within Irigaray’s as well, a set of constitutive exclusions that are inevitably produced by the circumscription of the feminine as that which monopolizes the sphere of exclusion?”[5]

These exclusions are where Butler’s ultimate critique of Irigaray lies: in the monopolization, the sheer identification of the feminine with alterity as opposed to the multiple racial, sexed, animal others. True that.

Butler’s otherwise dispute with an externality to language connects to her critique of Kristeva’s identification of chora with the maternal body, and what Butler perceives as the difference between Irigaray and Kristeva—that Irigaray’s mimesis is not an alternative ontology based in or identified as the maternal body, but is rather a writing that “inhabits—indeed penetrates, occupies, and redeploys—the paternal language itself.”[6]

Poststructuralist Whiteheadian Roland Faber repeats Butler’s critique of Kristeva, and reads in Butler popular critiques of Irigaray that I do not. Whatever difference there is between a method of mimetic alterity and performative multiplicity, it isn't aligned with stuff and no sense.

Regardless, in both the Faberian over-reading and the Butlerian critique, the object of suspicion is a maternal concept of chora. Elsewhere I dispute a sheer identification of the Kristevan chora with the maternal body (it's about the baby), but this doesn’t directly disrupt a familiar narrative of feminism’s presumed split into discourses of cataphatic essentialist sex versus apophatic poststructuralist gender in what Keller calls an apophasis of sex/gender.

I suggest that though the dimensions are multiple, in poststructuralist dismissals of Kristeva, the maternal body figures as the feminist dividing line. The difference between (Derridean) khōra and (Kristevan) chora thus describes a battleground, whether correctly attributed or not, between theory beyond gender or squarely within sex; a sex defined as the maternal body.

To this, I offer the following: that the abjection of maternity in the name of feminism should come under the same degree of feminist scrutiny as the conflation of maternity with the category woman.

Miming Irigaray’s “penetrative reading strategy” via a critique of her wetness, Butler suggests a penetrative erotogenics, a multiplicity of interpenetration via lesbian phalluses instead of the oral gynomophic wet folds of Irigaray’s “When Two Lips Meet.”[7] Faber then suggests that Butler’s reimagining of khōra thus succeeds in interrupting the authority of phallic autogenesis through the cooptation of penetration that violates a proper genesis of regulatory heterosex to enact improper forms of intragenesis:

as practices of a different (metaphysical) universality. Then khōra might indicate a performative interpenetration and improper forms of ‘intragenesis’—a ‘masculine penetration of the masculine…, or a feminine penetration of the feminine, or a feminine penetration of the masculine or a reversibility of those positions’—in which ‘the mimicking of the masculine’ (Butler) penetration contests the ‘originality’ of autogenesis.”[8]

This intragenetic multiplicity becomes the figure of Faber’s theology of polyphilic bodying and the refusal of lawful sexualities beyond gender binaries. It is through this figure that phallogocentrism, as violence, can be disrupted.

And yet, like Derrida and Caputo, in the midst of gendering khōra otherwise than feminine, he retains insistently the feminine pronoun she. It seems to be a sort of homage, a way to honor the way woman-as-such functions as the outside to law and language--the way that Woman is khōra--while rendering any materialist positing of Woman suitable for rejection through the assertion that khōra is not Woman. The terms, in a Derridean legacy, cannot be reversed. From Irigaray's view, such a refusal is not a rescue but the doubling up of violence--penetration followed by erasure--and the double bind tightens.

As a strategy to countering khōra’s passivity, interpenetration with enjoyment seems like a positive move. This is, after all, similar to the way I read Irigaray to imagine possibilities of lesbian pleasures in an exile of unrepresentability. But something is amiss with the double bind of Faber’s khōra. The trouble in paying homage to the she-ness of chora while fleshily queering it, specifically via Faber’s Deleuzian pre-subjective poly-penetration, is that activity without agency translates into lack of consent. To unfurl what is simultaneously a feminine underside of a binary into a multi-gendered receptive fleshiness invokes a trace of the original presumed penetrability of chora and the all too familiar passive material/feminine object of rape culture.

I don’t know that the violated will be helped by the motility of polyperverse orgiastic orifices. Alternative penetrations within chora may not mobilize or grant pleasure to chora. If the pleasures of poly-sexed bodies burst open the gender binary, this does not translate necessarily into greater compensation or less sex work for whomever is represented by the categories of sexual subordinates that include women. In fact, it is through the sex work untransformed by sexual revolution that multiplication of sex and sexualities may best obey capitalist cravings for varieties that reproduce the same old status.

The polymorphous perversity behind Faber’s polyphilia and the Deleuzian BWO is khōric because pre-object and pre-genital. But unless it remains in an arrested state of development, it will be vulnerable to a time-space of abjection. Penetrating the material maternal is the original incest taboo and the foundation of Oedipal metaphysics. The Freudian version of abjection is the regulation of polymorphous perversity into the Oedipal stage: the ossification of forced choices, lost objects, and murder.

Like Deleuze, Butler and Faber, Freud agreed that the substantialization of gender entails a forced binary, a violent competition, and a grievous loss. Thus in my reading, the many sexed bodies may not create gender justice because the first maternal body cannot go away, cannot be dispensed with metaphysically, metaphorically, biologically, existentially. The rejection of the first body is the gender, the sex, the difference. The binary man/woman is a cover for an older tale of ontic tragedy.

Wishing to contribute to both queer and feminist conversations about penetration and productivity at the ontological divide, I offer a version of the Kristevan chora as a resource for gender theorizing beyond static material or linguistic approaches. Gender itself may not be, in the end or in the first, about a binary; at least not a binary of supposed oppositional (hierarchical) categories of man/woman or ideality/materiality; it may be first about the binary of being and non-being, experienced at the beginning of human life.

Re-inflecting a pre-gendered maternal into the Platonic chora may seem like a retrograde move; disavowing (feminine) gendered agency in the way that Plato does. But it also de-essentializes gender from a static attribute to a process unfolding in time, and discloses a chink in regulatory phallologics before regulation holds sway.

Maternity as a non-singular condition of (pre)relation may usurp or disrupt binary oppositions as an anterior alternate, an a/sexual or third gender. The idea of pre-gendered, or otherwise-gendered maternity might allow the emergence of the difference between baby and mother to be co-creative.

If the first gender that the baby achieves is not its own gender but the gender of its mother, through its expulsion of the mother into the world of objects, then as the condition of difference, mother is the first gender. This difference is not based on a caregiver’s sex, but on their proximity and labor.

If my perspective has merit, that the logical and existential cause of misogyny is human birthing and nurture, then there will always be an idealized/subordinated position ascribed to the difference that collapses an environment into an object, within and against which a growing human differentiates; and whatever kind of entity performs that labor on behalf of a child, it is likely to become constituted by the labor category that gender is.

So it may not be possible to solve abjection, even through the opening up of the gender of mothers; but then again, non-normatively gendered parenting practices might be exactly what will change the nature of gender in coming generations.

Previous Page Chapter 5. Deconstruction Next Page Chapter 7. Kristeva

The Matter of Mind


[1] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993), 49. [2] Ibid., 36. [3] Ibid., 45. [4] Ibid., 42. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid., 45. [7] Ibid., 45-46. [8] Faber, “Khōra and Violence,” 112 (note 14), quoting Butler, Bodies That Matter, 51.

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