Judith Butler and Gender Trouble

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is a key text in the history of feminism and gender studies. This episode explores the significant points of Butler’s system of ideas, in particular the concept of gender performativity.

With this episode I’d like to talk about the philosophy of Judith Butler and the 1991 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Gender Trouble is one of a series of books I’ve been reading related to the field of gender studies. Some of the other books I’ve read most recently on the subject are Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. I’ve known for a while that I would want to study one of these books in more depth and eventually do an episode on it. And I eventually chose Gender Trouble because I felt like it encompassed the broadest set of philosophical issues that interest me. The topics in Gender Trouble are all presented in the context of feminism but they also have implications for those foundational topics that philosophers have been talking about for centuries. Most significant is the question of where words and concepts get their meaning, whether our conceptual categories are ‘out there’ in nature or whether they are socially constructed; for example, categories like male and female.

These topics are necessarily political, minimally in the technical sense of pertaining to the ways that societies organize and conduct themselves, and also in the more popular, partisan sense of being controversial topics on which people have strong opinions. What I’d like to do here is give Butler’s views as fair a presentation as I can. And I actually don’t think I have any prejudice against these views; I find them quite interesting. So any errors in my overview would be due only to honest misunderstandings of admittedly highly sophisticated philosophy. But I’ve been trying to read this book quite carefully so hopefully any such errors would be minimal, or at least amount to reasonable interpretations. I’ll try to bracket the points on which I agree or disagree with their philosophy. The goal is, before anything else, to promote understanding of their ideas. And this is a matter of principle. I think it’s crucial, prior to any kind of serious criticism of philosophical ideas, to present those ideas fairly and accurately. Many treatments of things like postmodernism, gender studies, and critical race theory do not give fair or accurate presentations of them or give any understanding of how intelligent, well-intentioned people would find these ideas persuasive. And you have to do that. If you look at these ideas and can’t understand how anyone could possibly think this way then that’s an indication that your understanding of it was not adequate and that you have to go deeper. Not necessarily to be persuaded, but to at least have a fair understanding. So I’ll try to do that here with Butler’s philosophy.

Butler described Gender Trouble as a work of cultural translation engaging with the ideas of many French thinkers as their work relates to gender studies. So much of the book is Butler talking about the ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Monique Wittig. I found all that very informative and was happy to learn more about these thinkers, particularly Kristeva and Wittig. But I won’t get into any of that here because that would just be too much. The only exception is Foucault, who I will talk about a little on the subject of language and power. But for the most part I want to focus on Butler directly. I’ll break the ideas of the book down into five major topics that stood out to me.

Gender as Construct and Performance

Butler’s primary thesis in Gender Trouble is that gender is performative. This is very similar to saying that gender is culturally constructed. With the thesis that gender is performative Butler seems not to be saying precisely the same thing as that gender is culturally constructed. But the two ideas seem to be consistent and Butler also speaks in the book of gender being culturally constructed. By the performativity of gender Butler means that gender has its origins in our actions and performance. We perform gender in the ways that we dress, speak, sit, walk, and certainly in the interests that we pursue. These all operate within the context and expectations of our cultures. These things constitute or create gender. And crucially, no one has a gender prior to such performances. It’s in these performances that people consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.

Butler says in a preface to a later edition that, “The view that gender is performative sought to show that what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylization of the body.” One important philosophical issue they address repeatedly is ontology. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being and one can also speak of having “an ontology” to refer to the things that are understood to exist in a worldview. A physicalist ontology, for instance, would not include any kind of spiritual element. Key for Butler’s philosophy is that they do not include gender in their fundamental ontology. Butler says, “That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality.” Also: “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” The alternative would be that gender has independent ontological status, in which case there would be gender identity behind the expressions of it. It would be this ontological gender that would constitute and produce the expressions of it. But Butler is saying that, to the contrary, it’s not the case that there is an ontologically self-sufficient gender identity behind the expressions and acts, that is producing them. Rather it’s the expressions and acts that entirely constitute gender.

Does that mean that gender is insignificant in Butler’s philosophy? Far from it. They say, for example: “To claim that gender is constructed is not to assert its illusoriness or artificiality.” One of Butler’s major points in the book is that gender constructs are extremely consequential and that’s why they merit attention. It’s not that gender, as a construct, is illusory or artificial but that it can be changed to better accommodate the needs of individuals for whom it’s currently not working so well.

Still much of that project involves undermining the apparent necessity and objectivity of gender. So they make a point of this. This makes allowance for thinking about gender in a different way. For example, they say: “If constructed gender is all there is, then there appears to be no ‘outside,’ no epistemic anchor in a precultural ‘before’ that might serve as an alternative epistemic point of departure for a critical assessment of existing gender relations.” I think this idea of an “outside” is quite illustrative. Something Butler has to do for their project is address what kind of standard any proposed change to the way we think about gender is to be evaluated. This kind of “outside” perspective is sometimes called an “Archimedean point”, a “view from nowhere” where we could see things as they are, without any kind of perceptual or conceptual filter. There doesn’t really seem to be a place for an Archimedean point in Butler’s outlook, but regardless gender wouldn’t factor in there anyway because gender is constituted by the actions of individuals and interpreted culturally. So there’s no standard of evaluation beyond that. “If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction.” Also: “Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived.”

One of the implications of this view of there not being an original nor a derived is that minority gender performances at the margins are no less original than what is perceived to be the norm. For example, on homosexuality Butler says: “The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original. Thus, gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy.” Or we might say, as construct is to construct. The idea being that heterosexuality and homosexuality are on equal ontological footing; neither is more original or real than the other. They are equally viable ways that individuals can perform gender.

The constructed and performative nature of gender will be important in Butler’s ultimate prescriptive project in the book, which will be to perform parodies of the norms in order to highlight their non-essential nature, to make room for other ways of performing gender.

Sex as Construct

That gender is a construct might seem controversial enough. But under the distinction between gender and sex, that’s been operative in intellectual circles for quite some time, it’s not necessarily all that radical. Under this distinction sex would be the physical, anatomical features distinctive to males and females. Whereas gender would be all the social roles and self-perceptions understood as male or female, or any other gender we might consider. And this actually isn’t just a distinction made by liberal theorists. Roger Scruton, a philosopher who pretty much anyone would place decidedly on the conservative end of the spectrum, said in his 1986 book Sexual Desire that, “Failure to distinguish sex and gender — to distinguish the material base from the intentional superstructure — is responsible for many interesting confusions.” Scruton even made use of gender as a construction: “I shall use the term ‘gender’ to denote both a way of perceiving things and a particular artificial feature of the thing perceived (it’s ‘gender construction’).” Scruton placed gender among a class of similar concepts, such as personhood, that “have this effect of changing the reality to which they are applied” with which we “reconstruct ourselves according to the requirements of a fundamental perception.” There’s nothing essentially radical about making this kind of distinction. Sex is the physical fact; gender is our psychological and social response to it.

Feminists have also made use of this distinction, notably Simone de Beavoir. Feminists have tended to use the sex/gender distinction to more reform-minded ends than conservative thinkers like Scruton. But Butler goes even farther. Butler actually refuses the sex/gender distinction by which sex is factually given and gender is culturally constructed. Instead, for Butler sex is also constructed. So Butler’s is a more radical position.

To make the case that sex is also constructed Butler needs to make use of important ideas from twentieth century developments in the philosophy of language. The philosophy of language is not Butler’s primary focus in the book but I’d like to give some of the background to make the case for the plausibility of this idea, regardless of whether or not it ends up being convincing. Butler talks about the way “language itself [produces] the fiction construction of ‘sex’ that supports these various regimes of power.” They are clearly influenced by Michel Foucault and his philosophy of the way scientific discourse is used to support certain power structures. And we’ll get to that. For my part though, I think Richard Rorty has a better philosophy to support Butler’s position.

Richard Rorty, in his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, argued against what he called “representationalism”, a view that our words and concepts are representations of things as they are, as if we were holding up a mirror to nature and just reflecting an image of it. But in Rorty’s view our knowledge of and speech about things is so thoroughly mediated and filtered that it is hardly representational. And there’s a lot of history behind this kind of idea in the history of philosophy and particularly in the epistemology of folks like John Locke and Immanuel Kant. The radical upshot of this is that it becomes impossible for statements about the world to be conclusively true or false. The best statement of this I know of from Rorty on this subject is from his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.”

The perspective that Rorty is promoting here is, depending on how you look at it, either radical or trivial. Rorty understands truth in purely linguistic terms. So it would follow just definitionally, and trivially, that you wouldn’t have truth without sentences. But to limit truth in such a linguistic way is itself bound to be controversial. That’s another topic though. The point is that there is at least a way to make the case for this kind of talk.

Let’s apply this now to sex. Rorty says that “most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states”. The things that, in the following step, we will refer to in our vocabulary as sexual organs and sexual features, are in space and time and effects of causes which do not include human mental states. But in the Rortyian view there is no truth or falsehood about them until we make statements about them. But in that process we are constructing sex.

Butler has some similar ideas. “Is there a ‘physical’ body prior to the perceptually perceived body? An impossible question to decide. Not only is the gathering of attributes under the category of sex suspect, but so is the very discrimination of the ‘features’ themselves. That penis, vagina, breasts, and so forth, are named sexual parts is both a restriction of the erogenous body to those parts and a fragmentation of the body as a whole.” Butler doesn’t have to deny and can affirm, as Rorty affirms, that these features that will be marked as “named sexual parts” are effects of causes in space and time, causes which do not include human mental states. Presumably Butler can concede that much. But Butler denies that there is one and only one possible way to pick out features of the world as entities of significance, that only certain groups of tissues can be marked out as organs meriting special distinction. They say, “sex’ imposes an artificial unity on an otherwise discontinuous set of attributes.” And further that, “the body is not a ‘being,’ but a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated.”

I think this addresses a common point of criticism made against the kind of view Butler is proposing: the criticism that this all ignores biology. I think there are different ways to make this criticism that can be either too simplistic and unsatisfactory or sophisticated and satisfactory. Whether Butler’s view or the criticism is ultimately convincing is another matter that I’ll leave to the side for now. Certainly the point about biology needs to be addressed. But what’s crucial is that Butler hasn’t ignored biology. Butler’s points are meta-biological and get beneath the methods and interpretations of biology itself. So if the criticism via biology is going to be made it’s going to have to be at this level; it’s going to have to be meta-biological as well. It won’t be sufficient to just say, “What do you mean sex is constructed? Just look at biology.” We can’t just “look at biology”. We have to do a more second-order look at what it means to look at biology. And this is actually characteristic of the whole discipline of the philosophy of science.

As an example of the kind of meta-scientific critique Butler makes, in one part of the book they get into different scientific studies conducted on the genetics of sex determination. I won’t get into the details but the basic takeaway was that Butler argues that the conclusions of the experiments were constrained from the outset by the kinds of questions that the experimenters allowed themselves to ask: “The framework suggests a refusal from the outset to consider that these individuals implicitly challenge the descriptive force of the available categories of sex; the question he pursues is that of how the ‘binary switch’ gets started, not whether the description of bodies in terms of binary sex is adequate to the task at hand… The conclusion here is not that valid and demonstrable claims cannot be made about sex determination, but rather that cultural assumptions regarding the relative status of men and women and the binary relation of gender itself frame and focus the research into sex-determination.”

There’s some similarity here to the ideas of Thomas Kuhn and his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which looks at the way certain “paradigms” of thinking constrain the kinds of questions scientists will think to ask, until a scientific revolution occurs to shift the paradigm. This kind of thinking isn’t necessarily anti-scientific. But it’s a reflection on the possibilities and limitations of scientific work.

Butler asks: “What is ‘sex’ anyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such ‘facts’’ for us?… If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.” And so for Butler the distinction breaks down and sex is also a cultural construct.

The Power of Language and Norms

I mentioned Michel Foucault earlier. Butler definitely sees gender constructs in terms of power relations, which marks their thought as political and certainly on the Left. Michel Foucault’s work is foundational to much of this since his work highlighted the way discourse, both scientific and juridical, is used to enforce power structures. In his classic work The History of Sexuality Foucault argues that, far from being reticent and repressed in our willingness to talk about sex in modernity we actually talk about it a great deal. But our abundant discourse on sex has not liberated us sexually. Instead discourse on sexuality has functioned to regulate sex. We talk about sex in order to control it. We mark out certain sexual practices and sexual drives and give them names in order to regulate and control them in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without those linguistic tools. Butler picks this idea up and applies it to gender in general; saying that the concept of gender is regulative.

Butler says that, “Under conditions of normative heterosexuality, policing gender is sometimes used as a way of securing heterosexuality.” I think this is an interesting way of understanding the concept of “heteronormativity”. One might wonder, what’s wrong with heteronormativity? Is being heterosexual bad? No, it’s not that. The problem is not with heterosexuality but with using heterosexuality as a normative standard from which to stigmatize homosexuality and judge it defective.

For both Butler and Foucault the way we use language has important implications for the way we see the world and understand what is normal and what is just common sense. Butler says, “Language gains the power to create ‘the socially real’ through the locutionary acts of speaking subjects.” Why would that be? One of the interesting things about language is that it dramatically expands the range of what it is possible for a single individual to think, because it is shared across time and space by millions of people. We have words like “curious”, “dormant”, “dependent”, “receptive”, ideas that are at some levels removed from physical objects that would be most obvious to just point to and give words for. But those concepts are quite useful once we have them and we don’t usually even stop to think about how remarkable it is that we have words like this for such abstract ideas. I understand Butler and Foucault to understand also that terms and concepts like heterosexuality and homosexuality are similarly abstract but that, once we have these concepts, they take on a character of seeming obvious as features of reality.

I think this gives a bit of insight into what we might sometimes think of as language policing from the Left. There’s an intellectual history here in which thinkers on the Left have been looking at the ways language operates in ways that structure and limit our thinking. Butler has some interesting comments about the way language affects what seems to be just common sense or transparent. For example: “There is nothing radical about common sense.” Conservatives and radicals might both agree on that and only disagree with whether that’s a problem; whether the status quo is desirable or needs to be changed. Butler also asks, “What does ‘transparency’ keep obscure?” At a surface level, looking at the apparent ‘way things are’ leaves uninvestigated all the presuppositions and philosophical underpinnings of our worldview. So in a way, the transparent, ‘way things are’ view leaves obscure or unexamined everything that supports it.

For both Butler and Foucault it’s not possible to just drop the exercise of power altogether, even if we want to. Discourse just does wield power. Their aim rather is to disperse power so that no single view dominates. “If sexuality is culturally constructed within existing power relations, then the postulation of a normative sexuality that is ‘before,’ ‘outside,’ or ‘beyond’ power is a cultural impossibility and a politically impracticable dream, one that postpones the concrete and contemporary task of rethinking subversive possibilities for sexuality and identity within the terms of power itself. This critical task presumes, of course, that to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination.” And for Butler they are going to affirm that it is indeed possible to operate within this matrix of power without replicating relations of domination. That’s an important point, I think, because one of the criticisms of this outlook is that it merely seeks to replace one power structure with another. And maybe that happens. Like, say university campuses and faculties being dominated by the Left. But in Butler’s view that kind of replication of relations of dominations is not a necessity and can be avoided, and presumably should be avoided.

Personal Identity and the Internal Psyche

The most interesting idea in Gender Trouble, for me, was Butler’s perspective on personal identity and the internal psyche. This isn’t one of the primary topics in the book but it’s one that really stood out to me and their treatment of it was one of the reasons I found this book the most interesting of the books I’ve read on gender studies. Butler says: “I continue to think that it is a significant theoretical mistake to take the ‘internality’ of the psychic world for granted.” This is quite fascinating. The internality of the psychic world is the kind of privileged knowledge we have of our own thoughts. This would seem to be the most basic, undeniable thing there is. And I think this might place Butler into conflict with some on the Left who would want to privilege “lived experience” and a person’s own account of it. But for Butler much of the internal psychic world is also constructed: “the ‘coherence’ and ‘continuity’ of ‘the person’ are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility.” This is a significant claim and I don’t think Butler justifies it philosophically in the book. That would be a huge undertaking in the field of philosophy of mind. And that doesn’t seem to have been part of the project; not every presupposition needs to be justified; that chain of justification needs to stop at some point for practical purposes to just get on with the principle project. But I appreciate that they state this presupposition because it helps to show how many of the other ideas of the book fit together under this perspective.

By challenging the internality of the psychic world Butler is challenging some basic premises to much of feminist theory. Butler says: “For the most part, feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued… Within feminist political practice, a radical rethinking of the ontological constructions of identity appears to be necessary in order to formulate a representational politics that might revive feminism on other grounds.” By rethinking the ontological constructions of identity Butler is getting into what has been called a metaphysics of substance.

“The metaphysics of substance is a phrase that is associated with Nietzsche within the contemporary criticism of philosophical discourse. In a commentary on Nietzsche, Michel Haar argues that a number of philosophical ontologies have been trapped within certain illusions of ‘Being’ and ‘Substance’ that are fostered by the belief that the grammatical formulation of subject and predicate reflects the prior ontological reality of substance and attribute. These constructs, argues Haar, constitute the artificial philosophical means by which simplicity, order, and identity are effectively instituted. In no sense, however, do they reveal or represent some true order of things.”

The metaphysics of substance, so described, is very much at odds with notions of construction, especially of the most fundamental concepts like personhood and gender. Butler asks: “What is the metaphysics of substance, and how does it inform thinking about the categories of sex? In the first instance, humanist conceptions of the subject tend to assume a substantive person who is the bearer of various essential and nonessential attributes. A humanist feminist position might understand gender as an attribute of a person who is characterized essentially as a pregendered substance or ‘core,’ called the person, denoting a universal capacity for reason, moral deliberation, or language… According to Haar, the critique of the metaphysics of substance implies a critique of the very notion of the psychological person as a substantive thing.”

Butler appropriates an idea from Nietzsche for their project of placing the origins of gender in performativity. “The challenge for rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche’s claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that ‘there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.’” “The deed is everything” is a succinct restatement of Butler’s theory of gender. For Butler gender is not so much a thing as it is activity; a verb rather than a noun.

This puts Butler in an interesting position relative to both identity politics and transgenderism, both of which Butler is in many ways sympathetic toward, so the difference would seem to be on technical theoretical grounds rather than partisan affiliation. Butler says: “The foundationalist reasoning of identity politics tends to assume that an identity must first be in place in order for political interests to be elaborated and, subsequently, political action to be taken. My argument is that there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed.”

Trouble and Opening Up Possibilities

The final topic I’d like to go over is the prescriptive, call to action, element of Butler’s book. What do they propose that we do with all of this? The title Gender Trouble indicates that Butler is going to propose making trouble for gender. And they want to do this through parody of prevailing assumptions about gender in order to expose their constructed, non-essential nature and so open up space for more ways of performing gender than those that currently dominate to the exclusion of others. Butler says: “The prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.”

For Butler the best way to make trouble and be in trouble is through parodic practices. They give drag as an example of consummate parody. “I describe and propose a set of parodic practices based in a performative theory of gender acts that disrupt the categories of the body, sex, gender, and sexuality and occasion their subversive resignificationand proliferation beyond the binary frame.” “Is drag the imitation of gender, or does it dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established?” “I would suggest as well that drag fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity.” This is similar to the idea quoted earlier where Butler says that “gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy. The parodic repetition of ‘the original’”. Butler says: “This perpetual displacement constitutes a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to resignification and recontextualization; parodic proliferation deprives hegemonic culture and its critics of the claim to naturalized or essentialist gender identities. Although the gender meanings taken up in these parodic styles are clearly part of hegemonic, misogynist culture, they are nevertheless denaturalized and mobilized through their parodic recontextualization. As imitations which effectively displace the meaning of the original, they imitate the myth of originality itself.”

Butler is particularly concerned or wary of anything that has the potential reinstitute exclusionary boundaries. This will necessarily mean that they are wary of many of the categories that group people together, such as identities. “The mobilization of identity categories for the purposes of politicization always remain threatened by the prospect of identity becoming an instrument of the power one opposes. That is no reason not to use, and be used, by identity.” Since woman is one such category that means Butler’s feminism is going to be quite different from traditional feminism. “If a stable notion of gender no longer proves to be the foundational premise of feminist politics, perhaps a new sort of feminist politics is now desirable to contest the very reifications of gender and identity, one that will take the variable construction of identity as both a methodological and normative prerequisite, if not a political goal.” The variable construction of identity; that’s a key notion for Butler.

One of the ways they talk about this that I found interesting was the idea of the “illimitable et cetera”. “The theories of feminist identity that elaborate predicates of color, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and able-bodiedness invariably close with an embarrassed ‘etc.’ at the end of the list… This illimitable et cetera, however, offers itself as a new departure for feminist political theorizing.” Multiplicity is the word of the day. Butler wants to see the redeployment of power through parodic practices by which “Cultural configurations of sex and gender might then proliferate.”

Concluding Thoughts

A few final thoughts here. One is that I don’t think we can downplay or even want to downplay the radical nature of Butler’s ideas. For most people these ideas will seem quite radical. And Butler seems to embrace that. But what I am interested in is at least shining some light on the reasoning and assumptions behind these views, to see that they’re not merely assertions, but that there is some serious and sophisticated thought behind them. I’ve wanted principally to give Butler’s ideas a fair and hopefully accurate presentation. So where do I come down on all this? To the extent that I have opinions on Butler’s ideas I’d like to remain charmingly coy about them. But for the most part I don’t even really have any conclusive evaluations and don’t feel much of a need to. One of things I enjoy about the life of the mind, a life of intellectual study and contemplation is being able to explore different ideas and systems of ideas without necessarily having to adopt or reject them, but just explore them. And I think Butler’s system of ideas is kind of interesting. And I’ll wrap it up there. Thank you for reading.

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