My story is that of a teacher who has witnessed a revolution. I saw no blood; no barricades; but a radical change nonetheless — and one that largely bubbled from the ground up. The revolution manifested itself in a graduate course, and this little story of mine hinges on big books.
I routinely teach a graduate seminar on historical methodology and contemporary theory at the University of Maryland in College Park. It is a difficult course, but well attended. I possibly delude myself by deeming it quite popular among our students. They and I tackle difficult ideas and we argue about everything. Intellectually, I usually come out of our 150-minute sessions exhausted, both elated and bruised. The books I assign fare similarly. From year to year, I have varied the syllabus, but I have included some repeats. Teaching the same book across time, I am able to gauge how some ideas become accepted, or not, and how fast.
Everybody seems to agree that class struggle exists, but Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower has not become transparent. Yet, another of these “big” ideas went from “crazy” to “banal” in the eight years of Obama’s presidency. The first time I taught this seminar in September 2008, I assigned Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble.” Published in 1990, Butler’s prophetic book was still cutting edge 18 years later, an activist assault against the creation of a sexual binary based on the supposedly a-historical notion of biology. Sexual organs, Butler notes, are only one of the many physiological traits humanity can use to divide itself into groups. Our obsession about this sexually defined binary world needs to be interrogated. It is not just the notion of male and female that is subject to the wearing and tearing of history.
Biology is no destiny either. Historical process and power relations may also motivate dividing humans into men and women. Butler writes powerfully and cogently, but her prose does not suffer lazy readers.
When I first discussed the book with a baker’s dozen of doctoral students, the seminar attendees were puzzled. It was the fall of 2008, and the students were a representative sample of graduate students in the humanities at that time. Mostly on the liberal side of the political barricade, the group comprised gays and straights. We understood gender – itself a category fully accepted as “useful” by historians only in the 1980s — as historically determined, but we took for granted the stability of a biologically determined sexual binary that produced subjectivities encapsulated in words like “men” and “women.” Butler was not so sure, and my students were puzzled: admiring, yes, but still puzzled.
Now jump to eight years later to the fall 2016. I again assign Butler’s book: I want to see whether it is still a challenging read. During Obama’s presidency, American public discourse changed and the pace of change accelerated: marriage equality is farther on its journey into federal law, and millions of people have populated the notion of sexual difference with their own desires, loving themselves and others as gay, bisexual, non sexual, transgender, gender-neutral, etc. New words have been created to express the articulation of the many ways we can “be.”
Butler’s prophetic, intellectual activism seems no longer confined to the margins of academic discourse. My seminar’s date with her book arrives. By then, I have had time to know my audience. It is as representative of 2016 graduate students in the humanities as my older, 2008, cohort was. But it is different, more varied. We have had heated arguments about Marx’s notion of class and commodity, about the silence of oppression, and the clamor of empire. But “Gender Trouble” does not make a splash. Eyebrows are not raised. It is almost a big, polite, yawn, a silent “so what?”
The pulsating and prophetic core of this profoundly forward-looking book has finally arrived in its moment: it can be retired as a venerable landmark in American intellectual history. I go back to my office and consider that I have witnessed a revolution: America has changed, and it has done so largely from below, by the simple act of people having the courage to be who they felt they were, in a society that finally recognized their freedom to do that. It was an overdue change that also came out of decades of political and intellectual struggle and that, I hope, cannot be reversed.
Saverio Giovacchini is a professor of history at the University of Maryland College Park.