(tl;dr: longwinded prattle about some book that helped me to understand and appreciate Butler’s essay.)
Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” was an exceedingly difficult read, but I found it rewarding to the same extent it was challenging. I want to deconstruct some of the concepts she refers to, but in so doing, compare it to a book that, on the surface, is quite unrelated. The starting point for this comparison is her use of the word “play” on page 311: “To say that I “play” at being [a lesbian] is not to say that I am not one “really”; rather, how and where I play at being one is the way in which that “being” gets established, instituted, circulated, and confirmed.”
In Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James P. Carse starts simply: “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, and infinite game for the purpose of continuing play.” Setting aside momentarily what exactly Carse means by a game, already we have an immediately useful binary opposition here, applicable to Butler’s theses: heterosexuality, whatever its methods, has, as an implied intent, the eradication of competing theories of sexual identity. She argues that her reluctance to identify as a lesbian is to prevent imbuing terminology with credibility when the definitions of those terms is largely under heterosexual control, but the core issue, in her words: “There is a political necessity to use some signs now … but how to use it in such a way that its futural significations are not foreclosed?” [311-312]
Carse’s response to that is the assertion that the most critical distinction between finite and infinite games: in finite games, the rules are fixed and must remain so, as it is by these immutable rules we know what game it is that we are playing, but in infinite games, not only do the rules change in the course of play, they must change in the course of play. An illustrative example of the difference between finite and infinite might be the rules of the dead Latin language, used today almost exclusively to insulate existing rituals from change, and say, the chaotic “lolcat” language spoken by cats everywhere on the Internet.) If we can associate lesbianism with an infinite game, this essential mutability of rules provides precisely the escape clause Butler requires to establish declaiming as a feasible method of gender insubordination.
Carse posits another such finite/infinite dichotomy in society/culture, which returns us to Butler’s original thesis, but affords us a new perspective. The role of society is to establish a repeatable past through the use of property, titles, and history, all of which necessarily point backwards in time. In this respect we see heterosexuality’s self-centralized role in history as destiny, using the regulatory features of society to inhibit change. In some regard or another, we all benefit from this inhibitory feature of society. Without it, for instance, a diploma or certification could not be guaranteed to retain its value in the future. Carse specifically mentions the validation of property rights as a central function of society. With respect to Butler’s argument, this argument takes on a kind of amusing twist: the proliferation of homosexuality does undermine the “property” value, if I may use the term in a truly barbarian sense, of “trophy” wives/girlfriends as well as those who demonstrate their “heterosexual credentials” via the conspicuous perfection of their family or domesticity, in the culturally-ensconced sense of “keeping up with the Joneses”. Society further serves heteronormative interests, Carse argues, in that finite sexuality is a particular game in which, the seduced becomes, in a real sense, the property of the seducer.
But what of culture ? “Deviancy,” writes Carse, ”is the very essence of culture.” [§35] Furthermore, Carse provides us with another finite/infinite dichotomy that not only cuts to the heart of the matter, but also uses the same words as Butler: contradiction/paradox. Butler cites the contradiction of heterosexuality as its frenzied assertions of being an original when no such original can exist, but she herself embodies the paradox of homosexuality in that, in her words, “identity is not self-identical” and that disclosure, or “coming out of the closet”, reinscribes the closet. Carse explains the paradox of finite and infinite games succinctly and brilliantly: finite play is fundamentally play against itself, and infinite play is engaged in by players who accept that they cannot finish what they start — who, in Carse’s words, “continue the play in others.” [§24] This, for me, is the closest description to the state of affairs of the GLBT community as I have seen it through the lens of this class: a lush, fertile, vibrant movement in an identity crisis insofar as it feels it needs an identity. It does not need to be so: Carse’s argument is that it is precisely because of our differences — because I do not know how you are going to reply to me when I speak to you — that we can truly communicate. Perhaps a less philosophical, but less accurate, analogy is that it is the silences between the notes that allow for us to create music and distinguish melodies, the spaces between words that harbor meaning. To quote the only reference to homosexuality in the book: “One can never say, therefore, that an infinite player is homosexual, or heterosexual, or celibate, or adulterous, or faithful–because each of these definitions has to do with boundaries, with circumscribed areas and styles of play. Infinite players do not play within sexual boundaries, but with sexual boundaries.” [§60]
This seems precisely the condition that Butler is looking for lesbianism to embody: the freedom to generate an undefinable but distinct culture which offers, rather than a linguistic straitjacket, a horizon unburdened by the need for self-definition. I return to one final open question: what, precisely, Carse means by “game”. Whatever this infinite game is, it is the object of Butler’s pointed use of the word “play” in the critical sense that Carse opens the book on: “Whoever must play, cannot play.” [§2] The only requirement to play, in both Carse’s and Butler’s cosmologies, is that one must do it freely.
Carse is not writing with an explicitly GLBT viewpoint, or indeed with any particular viewpoint, and this is one of the elements of genius in his book. It is written simply, with little ornamentation, and with maximal accessibility and applicability: 101 chapters, some of which are comprised of a single sentence, in total spanning 140-odd pages. Each chapter builds slowly upon the previous one, offering new perspectives as it does so, and very frequently a chapter says something profound that would require a diligent reader to re-read every previous chapter in light of a new perspective. It took me more than a year to read the book the first time, though it could easily be finished in an afternoon. Despite being a voracious reader, there are very few books I can say have changed my life. This is one that has.