Judith Butler writes in her book Undoing gender (2004) that "(Gender) is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint (Page 1)". By this she means that gender is today better understood not as the "protocategory", but when one "accept that gender, as one way of culturally configuring a body, is open to a continual remaking, and that "anatomy" and "sex" are not without cultural framing. " (p 9 and 10) Through this she dismisses gender as a biological category and defines it as a cultural one - and again as a cultural category that is continuously changing.
One might say that by doing so, she and other gender theorists are finally killing off one of the last of Nietzsche's Gods - the protocategory gender. But gender to Butler, is not really about female or male, it is the example of a defining category and thus the metaphor for how we use categories to frame ourselves and the rest of the world around us. It is also the metaphor for the the limits and possibilities that arise within this approach to life as she says in the interview with Roth: "We are being formed through institutions, we are being called names". Interestingly, Butler is very sensitive to the restraints that are put upon us by the way society, that is ourselves, defines the categories, and it seems to me that Butler is trying to find a way to live within society, but live freely and with pleasure. But Butler seems to think that a complete freedom from norms is impossible. She writes: "Individuals rely on insitutions of social support in order to exercice self determination" (p. 7) and further "One only determines "one's own" sense of gender to the extent that social norms exist that support and enable that act of claiming gender for oneself." (p. 7) Her solution to this problem is improvisation. As Roth describes it, the improvisation happens the moment the individual starts adapting and changing an already existing standard. The improvisation is a way of combining culture and our biology: "We are to an extent driven by what we do not know and cannot know and this drive (Trieb) is precicely what is neither exclusively biological nor cultural, but always the site of their dense convergence" (p. 15) This convergence of biology and culture creates a freedom and is a possibility to combine the norms and the individual freedom.
To Butler, it seems to be impossible to live without being acknowledging the actual or possible oppression of social norms. To Emerson, the social norms are blatantly rejected as limiting for the individual: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. " (7458) It is through this reliance on our personal beliefs and convictions that we invent ourselves, that we define ourselves, but this is an invention, and it is not something that should necessarily affect others; it is entirely personal:" My life is for itself and not for spectacle" (7484) he writes. In a way Emerson's approach has similarities to Butler's. They both find that the individual needs to personally be engaged in the building of their identity or as Emerson writes: "What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think." (7496) and his focus on the personal engagement is underscored: "Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself" (7496).
As Butler questions the limitations of the values of a category: " Am I a gender after all"(p. 16) , she is joined by Emerson in his rejection of consistency or as he says: "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do"(7532). The urge for consistency in our categorization will hold us back and prevent us from following Emerson's maxim to "live ever in a new day" (7532). So in a way both Emerson and Butler argues for an activist approach to the the invention of ourselves. But where the social norms should simply be ignored by Emerson, they are considered as the starting points for improvisation by Butler.
Butler, J (2004) Undoing Gender http://books.google.ca/books?id=U4Zq_ZdwgHkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=judith+butler+undoing+gender&hl=no&sa=X&ei=vXSEUYmhNIfbrAHLvYCABA&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAA
Butler/Roth: Coursera interview
Emerson, R.W. (2011) The complete Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The complete works collection. Kindl edition http://www.amazon.com/Illustrated-Unabridged-Transcendentalist-Transcendentalism-ebook/dp/B004PYDDHE/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1367635271&sr=1-4&keywords=emerson+ralph+waldo