A conversation continues


Jennifer and Earl Converse about Gender Theory

Jennifer was one of the stellar lights of my teaching years at UCSC. She has since gone on to graduate work at another institution. In preparing for her Master’s Degree Examinations, she recently asked me some questions, to which I responded. Her questions are not only interesting but also useful to those of you writing your final papers, so I excerpted part of this email conversation here:


Jennifer’s Question One:

Having read a lot of theory now, my first question would be, when you use
the terms „gender,“ „sex,“ and „sexuality,“ what do you mean? I mean,
what do you think people should mean?

Earl’s Response One:

Hi, Jennifer – Well, I am definitely narcissistic and somewhat monomaniacal, and care about what I think, but I hope I haven’t gotten to the point to confuse or equate what I mean with what I „think people should mean,“ although I must admit it’s hard to say that I don’t care what people mean when they use terms like „sex,“ „gender,“ etc. I don’t think people „should“ mean what I mean by the terms but I do think it’s essential that people *say what they mean* by the terms they use, and stick to what they said they mean (I’m sure you’ve heard this speech and others like it from me before.)

I believe in lively, honest disagreements, and love discussions among and across points of view, but they can only really take place if everyone has at least a tentative common vocabulary – sometimes disagreements are fuelled unhelpfully or disguised inadvertently because the people involved don’t realize how or to what extent the meanings of the same terms change from speaker to speaker. So to kick things off, I place below a section from Chapter One of Strategies of Deviance in which I lay out my working definitions of the key terms: sex, gender, and sexuality.

By „sex“ I simply mean the biological division of male and female; by „gender“ I mean the representations of one’s sex. These representations include appearance and behavior, but also status, privileges, and restrictions accorded to or imposed upon sexed individual as part of their gendered identity. One’s gendered visibility is further inflected by the relative adherence to or transgressions from the representational norms of the dominant social order.

„Sexuality“ includes acts, fantasies, object-choice, and orientation.“Object-choice“ denotes the sex of the person desired, and reflects both contingent and variable choices as well as fully defined sexual orientations. I distinguish between „object-choice“ and „orientation“ because „object-choice“ does not always imply an „orientation,“ and because either a variable or consistent „object-choice“ affects an individual’s gender identity differently according to the system.

I have already considered certain sexual discourses such as those in Classical Greece, in which the sex of his partner does not affect the „gender“ of the exclusively penetrative male. The receptive partner, however, is either „feminized“ or otherwise reduced to a „noncitizen“ in the phallocracy, a „nonperson.“1 In these systems, therefore, the sex of the object-choice is unmarked but the role taken in the sexual act is marked. Within the deadly mythical mass known as the „general population“ of the United States, however, any admission — or suspicion — at all of desire between men is often feared as something that will disqualify the individual from full social recognition as men in certain social situations.

From Strategies of Deviance p. 13 [END]**

Jennifer Question Two:

Is it right to say that, first gender was assumed to be
something natural, so feminism broke it off from „sex,“ and said that
gender was learned patterns/behaviors that work to naturalize themselves
by naturalizing their relation to biological sex; thus, two categories:
gender and sex. And now, post-structuralists (is that right) like Butler
conceive of sex–biological sex–as being under the rubric of gender as
well. Thus, the original breaking apart of the categories has fallen back
together, but for completely different reasons. Instead of both being
„natural,“ both are now constructed. Is this right? Is this what you
think?

Still, then what is the „right“ definition of sex, and sexuality?
Is sexuality to be thought of as emerging with Foucault, the distinction
between sex acts and sexual identity, sexuality being the latter?

Earl Response Two:

My first response is a stylistic one- don’t let either metaphors or grammar do your sentences thinking for you. The first question you ask threatens the latter – and it lurks in the passive voice: „Is it right to say that, first gender was assumed to be
something natural, so feminism broke it off from „sex,“ and said that
gender was learned patterns/behaviors that work to naturalize themselves
by naturalizing their relation to biological sex; thus, two categories:
gender and sex.

When you say „gender was assumed to be natural“ – by whom? When? And how does the presumption of naturalness differ from the ideological fixing that instantiates „gender“ in the first place? Does a feminist understanding of gender preclude or rescind the „learned patterns“ that might constitute even a „liberated“ or „revolutionary“ rewrite of gender? (I realize this is hardly an answer to your question – it’s a response.)

The second part is close the metaphor thinking itself – here in the equally hard-to-ferret-out habit of personification (and I really mean it sincerely – it’s hard to prevent passive constructions and personifications from creeping in). „Gender … work[s] to naturalize [itself]?“ „Gender“ as a category of sociosexual identity, or as (in my terms) a repetoire of representational norms (of one’s sexed identity) cannot work to „naturalize itself.“ The naturalization is part and parcel of the ensemble of discursive practices that constitute that category or that repetoire in the first place. Again, I’m afraid this might read as if I’m dodging the question, but I think this tact may be the most helpful I can offer, since clarification of questions is so essentially to effective critical thinking and critical intervention. And also, since I am neither on your committee, nor do I have your reading list (by the way, I’d love a copy of your reading list if you have an electronic version you could zap to me), I think this kind of response would be the least likely to add to your burden of reading or to enter obtrusively into a study plan I know too little about.

AND YOU WRITE:

Still, then what is the „right“ definition of sex, and sexuality?
Is sexuality to be thought of as emerging with Foucault, the distinction between sex acts and sexual identity, sexuality being the latter?

I don’t believe in A „right“ definition of sex, or sexuality – but, in „my“ understanding of the two of them, I would say that „sexuality“ is not only NOT synonymous with identity, but it undermines identity. See my spiel on these things at the following website:
http://wwwcatsic.ucsc.edu/~ltmo136/smcp.htm

Still, then what is the „right“ definition of sex, and sexuality?
Is sexuality to be thought of as emerging with Foucault, the distinction
between sex acts and sexual identity, sexuality being the latter?

Jennifer Question Three

(This is just a question I think about; I tend to really like imaginative
thinking–that is what theorizing is, on the one hand; but on the other, I
see how it may be less useful politically at times; I mean. {For example, Wittig’s style of writing is often more literary than theoretical. But even if what she wrote is „untrue“ does untrue, does it make
it less able to impact the world?)

What is your take on „imaginative resources“ in theory? This is just me
thinking about things, really. Do you think that imagination is a key
thing, or do you think people should stick to „what is“ in the world? Is
there a relationship between imaginative thinking and political salience,
or not? For instance, what do you think of Haraway’s cyborg, or Wittig’s
„lesbian“ (who is supposed to be free of gender–not a woman at all, and
somehow able to exist outside the parameters of opposition to women/men)?

Earl’s Response Three:

I love this question. I often ask my students if they „believe“ Freud – and it invariably gets hostile responses. The question itself is not only tricky and a trick question, but it is a poignant one because it so obviously questions itself. And people are often not prepared for a theoretical practice that questions itself as it articulates itself, it as searches for the conversation it will have belonged to. I can’t imagine a theory worth reading or listening to that isn’t the ongoing production of imagination. And (at the risk of sounding like Wallace Stevens) I can’t imagine a world worth engaging in that didn’t require imagination to do so. I’ll give you another example of a critical thinker who even self-consciously than either Haraway or Wittig uses deliberate fictions to „realize“ his thought – Samuel R. Delany. That’s one of the main reasons my new senior seminar this fall is called, „The Critical Practices of Samuel R. Delany.“

Your comparison of Haraway’s cyborg and Wittig’s „lesbian“ is very provocative and interesting. I have always had trouble in understanding the direct usefulness of the cyborg metaphor after a certain point, and I have never (and I’ve said this to Donna Haraway, too, and I say this within the context of my utmost respect for and rapt attention to Donna Haraway’s work) seen the feasibility or even the desirability of picturing a „world without gender.“ To me it is not only literally inconceivable it seems to ask the question (or lead me to ask the question) – what happens to the „genders“ in order to create such a world, and what might be lost there? And how could it be determined that whatever is at stake in „gender“ is sufficiently intelligible and uniform across cultures, historiocultural differences, and modes of oppression resistance and strategies of counterhegemonic articulation, that the erasure of gender should be a welcome or necessarily utopian gesture?

Furthermore, your pairing of Haraway’s cyborg and Wittig’s „lesbian“ illuminates another point for me – for which I’ll return the favor by questioning you (instead of merely reporting what crossed my mind):

What is the difference between imagining a cyborg that has no gender and imagining a „lesbian“ that is not a woman?

{I don’t have AN answer – but I’ll clue you into the direction my thinking toward an answer would take : To say a „lesbian“ is not a „woman“ is a statement reflecting a profound and continuing commitment to the question of gender. Maybe rereading Wittig with that in mind might be useful (when you have the time, that is, which means AFTER the examination.)



1. For example, David M. Halperin details the dependence of Greek male citizenship on sexual propriety. To accuse a fellow citizen of prostitution was a particularly powerful defense against lawsuits in Athens, because those male citizens found to have been prostitutes lost all civic rights, including the right to press law suits (Halperin 94-95). To citizenship. It is precisely the Athenian’s phallically derived citizenship and the modern heterosexual male’s phallically derived subject position that make the conscious „submission“ to penetration an outrage against the institution of masculinity itself. See also Floyd Salas’s novel in which a man who was raped was expelled from his Chicano community. (Salas 37-39; Bruce-Novoa 72-73).

Go to the OUTLINE WORKSHOP
Go Kate on the Unconscious
Go to the Fantasy Campus Metamenu
Go to Paul S. Bauman’s draft outline (excerpt)