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Hansell, J.H. (1998). Reply to Commentary. Psychoanal. Dial., 8(3):379-381.

(1998). Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 8(3):379-381

Reply to Commentary Related Papers

James H. Hansell, Ph.D.

Judith Butler's astute commentary offers more of the elegant insights that are characteristic of her work and that inspired me to write my piece initially. It is a privelege to reply.

In her comments, I take Butler to be raising crucial questions not just about my essay, but about the entire project of mapping the landscape of gender identity. In two distinct ways, she focuses on the fundamental question: What are the limiting parameters of any effort to chart this territory? First, Butler asks us to consider whether the relativity of every particular cultural and historical context fundamentally compromises any effort to firmly locate gender identity and its developmental history. Second, she wonders whether the very arguments that she and I use to deconstruct gender as a natural category call into question any attempt to formulate developmental accounts of gender identity, such as those I propose in my essay.

To the first of these two questions, I find a relatively straightforward answer. Naturally, any account of gender identity relies on shared, particularistic cultural presuppositions and is context-dependent. Does this make it impossible to universalize? Of course. Does it mean such accounts are useless? Of course not. They are useful when one is mindful of their contextual limits, just as it is very useful to speak Russian in Russia but not very useful anywhere else.

I find Butler's second question more complex. My response leads directly to the heart of the issues that I hoped to raise in my essay, and that might be illustrated best with a clinical example. Consider the following commonplace psychoanalytic situation. A male heterosexual patient embarks on an uncharacteristic period of sexual promiscuity and frantically pursues stereotypically masculine activities as his male analyst's summer vacation approaches. When asked about this change in his behavior, the patient at first says only, “What's to explain? I'm a guy!”—perfectly illustrating Butler's thesis regarding the defensive, retroactive use of gender as a natural, explanatory category.

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