On page 104 Culler writes: “Butler proposes that we consider gender as performative, in the sense that it is not what one is but what one does… a condition one enacts… You become a man or a woman by repeated acts, which, like Austin’s performatives, depend on social conventions, habitual ways of doing something in a culture.” Shortly after he talks about exclamations of “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” after the baby is born. He says that this is more of a performative statement than it is constataive. In other words the statement does more to create its subject than it does to describe a factual condition.
I should first give credit to the idea being described. I do agree that identity is largely shaped by society and conventions within a culture. Along with the exclamations of “It’s a boy!” would commonly be blue bibs, onezies, and paint. Later on this would progress to something like action figures and toy trucks. A young and impressionable child will have many of his dispositions formed by adults and the culture he grows up in. So, in a sense “It’s a boy!” is the first instance of a long chain of predetermined conditions that the child will be exposed to, thus making it performative.
My problem with Butler’s proposal, as it is presented, is that it seems to take the conventions of the society that a child grows up in for granted. Further, it seems to be assuming that all of the conditions associated with “It’s a boy!” were decied arbitrarily. I can agree that there are gender roles and that there is a certain degree of “gender conditioning,” but I would like to see more consideration given to how and why the gender roles came to be in the first place.
When Culler writes that “A man is not what one is but something one does,” I think he comes on too strong. It seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that a man “was what he was” in the first place, and as a result certain (appropriate) conditioning practices were adopted in order to facilitate the development of future generations of men. It would be interesting to look for similarities in gender conditioning across cultures, especially further back in history among cultures that were not in contact with one another.
On page 122 under the section on eithics there is a passage that suggests a sort of personal, individual essence that exists outside of the social conventions and developmental conditioning. I am referring to when Huck Finn debates whether or not to report the runaway slave. At first he believes that he should, basing this belief on the moral principles he has been taught and on the way his conscience has been developed. However Huck reconsiders and decides to tear up the letter based on his own ethical intuition. This suggests a degree of personal identity with regard to morality, and I think it is reasonable to consider that the same sort of dynamic might be at play with regard to gender.