Saturday, November 9, 2013

Butler, Emerson on Improvisation, Creativity and Self-Invention

Comparing Judith Butler and Ralph Waldo Emerson on : Improvisation, Creativity and Self-Invention.
Judith Butler in Undoing Gender [1], writes “[Gender] is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint.” Judith elaborates her argument by giving examples from different movements, such as feminism and queer theory, and argues how one is an improvisation of the other. She elaborates on how these movements while working under the norms of society have pushed society's boundaries, in particular its understanding of the gender. In this essay, i argue how Judith's views of these gender movements and their evolution are actually an application of Emerson's ideas of non-conformity.
Emerson, in his essay on Self Reliance [2], brings up the notion of improvisation and creativity from the perspective of an individual. According to Emerson, the constraint to improvisation comes through society's need to conform to its practices. He writes - “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity.”
Emerson goes on further and argues - “Whoso should be a man, must be a nonconformist. ... Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”. One can only be great if he practices what he truly believes in and does so without any fear or guilt. According to Emerson, this is the only way man should exist. He writes - “Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it i contradict everything you said to-day. - 'Ah, so you shall be misunderstood.' - Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood and Socrates and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood”.
Today's gender movements can be seen as an application of non-conformity to the current society's norms with respect to gender, sex and human anatomy. In [1], Judith argues that earlier, till at-least a couple of decades ago, application of gender discrimination was limited to discrimination against women. But over time, gender discrimination has evolved to include various other problems such as gender identity, queer theory, gay rights and many other forms of discrimination, each trying to correct a very niche convention. Furthermore, she claims that it is not that we have solved the problem of discrimination against women and have now moved to other forms of discriminations. She writes that “... these stories [different gender discriminations] are continuing to happen in simultaneous and overlapping ways as we tell them. They happen, in part, through the complex ways they are taken up by each of these movements and theoretical practices”.
These gender movements are built on their own self-reliance and hence may not agree with each other. These movements, sometimes, are at odds in their principles, such as between queer theory and intersex activism on categorization of gender, or they may not see eye to eye on instruments of improvisation, for example – in usage of technology in reproduction or sex change, but at their core they have a common mission. Judith writes - “The task of all of these movements seems to me to be about distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live, and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself.” Thus, Judith argues on how these gender movements question and push society's conventions while strivings for freedoms to live and love.
In conclusion, Judith's views on improvisation of gender movements through history is an application of Emerson's philosophy of Self-Reliance in the context of Gender. Judith's analysis of these different gender movements can be seen as each being non-conformist to its past and each at the risk of being misunderstood, is trying to fight for society's freedom to live.

[1] Undoing Gender, 2004, Judith Butler.
[2]Essays: First Series, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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